Special school heads think 14% of their children won’t be back

Amy Skipp is a researcher, founder of ASK Research, and the creator of the EHCP Journeys website. She's writing today about the research she's leading on for the Nuffield Foundation. It focuses on how educational provision during the coronavirus pandemic has changed for children and young people who attend special schools.

Today we release the first findings from our research about the experience of lockdown in special schools and colleges, and the families whose children attend them.

We didn’t intend to publish until October but what we were hearing raised so many questions about pupils returning to education in September that we have written this extra report especially. We feel there is an urgent need for Government (and this means many government departments, such as the Department of Health, Department for Transport, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, not just the Department for Education) to address the needs of children with special needs and disabilities right now. Here’s why…

Our research involved surveying a representative sample of 200 Heads of special schools and colleges in England, then 40 in-depth interviews with a sample of these, and survey responses from 500 parents (many of whom are probably reading this article – in which case, thank you!) and 40 in-depth interviews with them.

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Main findings

Regarding the return to education in September we found:

Some pupils will not be going back

84% of Heads think not all of their pupils will return to school in September. They thought, on average, this would be was around 14%. If this turns out to be the case then over 20,000 children and young people will no longer be attending special schools and colleges.

64% of providers thought that a main reason for parents not sending their child back to school or college in September was because they do not think it is safe.

This is despite the fact that Boris Johnson, Ministers and the Government guidance have stated clearly that “All children and young people, in all year groups and setting types, will return to education from the beginning of the autumn term.”

Heads said they thought the main reason for parents not wanting to send their children back were:

  • Because pupils are medically vulnerable – this meant those who had been advised to shield but also those whose conditions or health history meant that parents and school staff thought they might be more at risk of catching or being severely affected by the virus.
  • Pupils needs and behaviours mean they are unable to adhere to safety guidance, such as keeping their distance, washing their hands, coughing into a hanky, staying in their ‘bubble zone’ and so on, and so again are at more risk of catching or spreading the virus to others. This includes pupils who require full-time one-to-one support and personal care, where one or more adults have to be in regular close contact with them. Over 50% of schools said this was the case for more than half of all the pupils in their setting.  

Parents' concerns and potential implications

“There is just absolutely no way he can social distance. He doesn’t get it, why would he? He doesn’t understand personal space at the best of times. That’s why we don’t go out. So I just cannot see him getting on back at college. He won’t understand and not be able to do it, so he’ll kick off and I’ll end up having to get him back anyway”

Parent interview

Parents also told us they had concerns about:

  • Their children coming into contact with things other pupils had touched – especially in settings where pupils dribble or mouth items or use saliva as a sensory stimulant.
  • Their children being in a higher risk category (such as from a BAME background)
  • Not having the full support their child needed in place.

We point out that families who choose not to send their children back now have a tricky set of options:

  • Potentially face fines for non-attendance
  • Rely on ‘remote’ support, where schools can offer it (and we detail what this would need to be like to be effective), or
  • Home educate. 

Families feel they are having to choose between risking their child’s health or their education. Steps had been taken by providers to try and reassure families but concerns persisted about children catching or spreading the infection. School and college leaders did not feel they were equipped to fully answer parents’ concerns about potential risks to pupils.

Schools and colleges will struggle to provide the same support

Headteachers told us that their provision will have to be different from September. This is no surprise as school is going to be very different for all children post-pandemic. However, because of the needs of pupils in special education, the different way teaching is delivered, and the need for wider input (such as language, physical and emotional therapies), this changed approach is likely to have a different effect in special schools.

Heads reported changes including:

  • Reduced and altered contact hours – with some students only being offered part-time places
  • Fewer activities (such as use of sensory rooms and hydrotherapy pools; and activities which require leaving the school premises or coming into contact with the community such as running cafes and shops)
  • Less curriculum input (as they focus on addressing additional emotional and mental health needs as a result of the pandemic)
  • Different routines (such as being in bubbles with set groups of pupils and staff, staying in certain parts of the school, and adhering to safety guidance)
  • Stronger behaviour management policies, including in some cases exclusion for pupils who spit or need restraint (as this was seen as a risk to staff)
  • Different levels and methods of therapeutic input – including ‘remote’ delivery or use of school staff to deliver therapy rather than a health professional.

This shows that again, despite Government assurances that all pupils will get a full-time place in September and still be accessing a broad and balanced curriculum, school staff feel this will not be possible within the current guidance.

Amy Skipp
Amy Skipp

Confused messaging made things more difficult

The clearest message we got from all of our work with school staff and parents, was that their biggest issue was trying to follow all the evidence and guidance coming out from government, the media, unions, scientists and others. It also wasn’t clear when people referred to all children, whether they were including those with special needs or health conditions.

This seemed to start from the moment Boris Johnson announced that schools would close to the majority of pupils, but continue to offer a place for pupils with an EHCP. In special schools, virtually all pupils have an EHCP. But no matter how much they wanted to offer places, knowing how hard it would be for families having children at home 24/7, for many weeks and with no support, there was no way it was possible to do this. They told us that with staff off (ill, shielding or caring for their own children at home), it was not clear that pupils with SEND were safe to mix with others, and they didn’t have the space to allow two metres between children.

The overall feeling was that either the government didn't understand how special schools and colleges worked, had no appreciation of the different issues raised by pupils with disabilities, or simply hadn’t thought about pupils with SEND. Providers and parents said they felt forgotten.

“None of the guidance has been specific to us and the way we deliver in specialist. Everything that’s come out so far has shown that no one in the Department remembers we exist or is able to think what the advice means for us”

– School leader interview

Our call for action

In conclusion, our call for action is for central government and local authorities to work across all the relevant departments, to:

  1. Provide guidance on safe in-school delivery for pupils with EHC Plans
  2. Produce guidance on special education delivery expectations
  3. Clear and consistent communication (for staff and families) about the risks to pupils and staff in special education and how these are being addressed 
  4. Reassess resourcing to reflect the additional requirements of special schools and colleges (such as extra staff, input and remote support)  

“We need time, money and a sustainable plan…to support the most vulnerable families and their learners to repair the damage [caused by the pandemic] and improve lifelong prospects.”

Provider survey response
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In other news: New letter from SEND Minister, Vicky Ford

Amy Skipp sent her report to the Department for Education yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon, SEND Minister Vicky Ford put out a letter for parents and teachers of children with SEND. Find it here

Also read:


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  • Neurodiversity Celebration Week
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