“Just enough” is not enough: why we’re failing SEN students in the UK

The South East of England has the highest number of SEN students, yet London gets £22 million more in high needs funding
Under-funded state schools forced to fork out £6,000 for every SEN student they support
Female SEN students may be falling under the radar, says literacy and inclusion expert Jules Daulby

Children are among the most vulnerable in society, and when a child has special educational needs (SEN), it’s all the more important that their needs are properly met in school and beyond. Yet, as BBK has revealed, the government is continuing to fail SEN students across England.

Through collating publicly available government data, and with commentary from literacy and inclusion expert Jules Daulby, the specialist law firm were able to paint a stark picture of the SEN landscape in England.

London tops rankings for SEN education

Bolt Burdon Kemp looked at ten factors relating to SEN education for each of the nine regions of England, including the percentage of good or outstanding schools in the region, the number of educational psychologists, the high needs funding amount given to the region and the number of places available for children with high needs.

To start with, the following is a breakdown of SEN education in England, from the best performing areas to the worst*:

1. London
2. South East England
3. North West England
4. West Midlands
5. East of England
6. South West England
7. East Midlands
8. Yorkshire and the Humber
9. North East England

Its abundance of resources and facilities means London tops many of the metrics, and yet it’s the South East that’s home to the greatest number of SEN students. In fact, London gets a whopping £22.9 million more in high needs funding than the South East.

Changes in the system aren’t necessarily positive

Number of SEN pupils has risen for third consecutive year
Changes in SEN identification may mean some pupils are left behind

The proportion of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities has risen for a third consecutive year. In January 2019, pupils with SEN represented 14.9% of the overall student body, while the number was 14.6% in 2018 and 14.4% in 2017. However, as Daulby points out, “it’s hard to know if there are more children with SEN now, or whether the system is simply identifying needs better.

“To complicate matters,” she adds, “there are likely to be many children who used to be identified with SEN who aren’t now. SEN identification has gone from a 5-stage risk classification to 3 stages and now to two: students who need SEN support and students who need an Educational, Health and Care plan (EHC plan).” As classifications change, children who previously had SEN support may find themselves being left by the wayside. How many children are currently unidentified within the overall SEN numbers due to these changes?

SEN support and EHCP may no longer help the child

For those children who are classified as needing SEN support, Daulby says research has shown that “children with an EHC plan don’t make as much progress as children with similar SEN who don’t have an EHC plan. Children may be becoming dependent on support in a phenomenon termed ‘learned helplessness’, where students begin to erroneously believe themselves incapable of progressing without the support in place.” It’s important for teachers and support staff to ensure that, while children are progressing through school, they’re doing so without losing their ability to learn independently.

The government is perversely penalising SEN-friendly schools 

According to government reports, London and the North West of England have the highest school expenditures, although the South East is home to more specialist schools and more students with SEN. A ranking by expenditure is below:

1. London
2. North West England
3. South East England
4. West Midlands
5. Yorkshire and the Humber
6. East of England
7. South West England
8. East Midlands
9. North East England

“One of the problems the government must tackle,” says Daulby, “is the SEN notional budget (SNB). This expects schools to spend a certain amount of their own budget (currently £6000) for each child with SEN. Of course, this means that inclusive schools who welcome children with SEN pay a hefty price for inclusion. While children with an EHC plan are privy to funding they can bring with them, the SNB still means schools are being unfairly punished for their efforts to be inclusive.” For children with SEN who live in areas that have less budget to work with, the SNB could well be the only factor that prevents them from being accepted into their school of choice.

Girls may be missing out on crucial SEN support

More boys get SEN support than girls
Girls may be going under the radar when identifying SEN needs

It’s also interesting to explore the gender differences in SEN support. More boys are assessed and labelled with SEN than girls. While this could simply mean that boys are more likely to have special educational needs, there could be more at play. “It’s possible that girls are going under the radar,” says Daulby, “with their behaviour being misread and the signs of SEN being missed, simply because they don’t behave in the same way as boys do.

“Girls generally don’t have the behavioural issues associated with SEN, and their traits may not be as easily identified as it is with boys. For example, boys may line up trains – an early signifier that they may have autism – while girls may have an eating disorder, which doesn’t easily translate as autism spectrum disorder,” says Daulby.

Parents and experts are being ignored in SEN frameworks

Government needs to listen to parents and students more
OFSTED failed to consult SEN organisations when creating framework
Teacher training in SEN needs to be a priority

As well as potentially missing the nuances between genders, SEN assessments and frameworks may be missing a crucial component: the voices and opinions of students with SEN and their parents. “The government is not listening enough to parents or students,” says Daulby, adding that “they don’t consult enough with SEN charities and organisations. OFSTED created a new SEN framework to scrutinise schools without consulting any SEN organisations.”

A good first step might be to increase the number of experts in the room, namely by training all teachers in how to include SEN pupils in the classroom. “The lack of support and training given to teachers is problematic,” says Daulby. “During teacher training, there needs to be more mandatory placements in both special schools and pupil referral units to allow teachers a better understanding of how to include children in mainstream classrooms.”

A stark future for SEN education?

So, what does the future hold for SEN education? In October 2019, a Commons report damning the 2014 SEN reforms highlighted several issues, including lack of accountability from the Government (such as a failure to monitor local authorities) and detailing negative experiences by families. “From this report, it’s clear that the system has become more adversarial than ever,” says Daulby.

“What’s more,” she adds, “often times the mantra in children’s services for intervention is ‘just enough, soon enough’ so families and children with SEN often don’t get help until crisis point has hit.” If we are to have any chance of providing a better experience for families and children with SEN, we need to engage more closely with the families and teaching staff closest to the issue.

For the full table and more insights from Jules Daulby, visit the Access to Education for SEN page here: https://www.boltburdonkemp.co.uk/campaigns/access-to-sen-education-uk

* this ranking is based on how the region fares when combining figures for the following four factors: percentage of good or outstanding schools, number of educational psychologists, high needs funding, number of places for children with high needs.

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