System for children with special needs in England ‘riddled with inequalities’

Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are being failed by a system “riddled with unexplained inequalities”, according to a damning parliamentary report.

The report says many of the 1.3 million pupils in England with SEND are not getting the support they need and end up being excluded from school, damaging their education, wellbeing and future life chances.

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Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the funding crisis in SEND and shortcomings in provision were high on the political agenda. Ministers responded with additional investment and the promise of a review of services, which is yet to be published.

The new report by MPs on the public accounts committee depicts a system in which “desperate” parents fight to secure an education, health and care plan (EHCP) – a legally enforceable package of support for those most in need – which has become seen as a “golden ticket” to get adequate support.

About 20% of children with SEND succeed in getting an EHCP, the report says, while a remaining one million children with SEND but no EHCP do not have the same legal entitlements and are at risk of missing out on support they need in overstretched mainstream schools that are under financial pressure.

MPs on the committee criticised the Department for Education (DfE) for failing to get to grips with the mounting pressure in the system and said ministers were not doing enough to try to understand the reasons for significant disparities between different groups of children and the support they receive.

Almost twice as many boys as girls are identified as having SEND, the report says, and there are large disparities across different regions and between ethnic groups, with 8% of Chinese pupils with SEND compared with 15.5% of black students.

MPs were also concerned about the disruption caused to children’s education by high levels of exclusions among students with SEND. Almost half of all permanent exclusions (44.9%) in 2017-18 were pupils with SEND, “levels even the department admits are unacceptable”, the cross-party committee said.

“Pupils with SEND deserve the same quality of education and to get the same value from our education system as their peers,” said Labour’s Meg Hillier, the committee chair.

“Disturbing disparities in identifying pupils with SEND, and in provision for them, point to underlying problems that can only be addressed through proper data collection and information.

“These children, already facing extra hurdles and challenges in this life, must not find themselves discriminated against several times over.”

Responding to the findings, Rosamund McNeil, the assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Dramatic funding cuts to local authority and school budgets have led to a loss in confidence for many parents that their child will receive appropriate SEND support.

“For many, the EHCP is seen as the only way of accessing the education provision their child needs. Sadly, this doesn’t always provide the golden ticket they are looking for.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), added: “The PAC’s report paints a stark picture of a system for supporting children with special educational needs which is poorly funded and ridiculously complicated.

“It is important to understand that many teachers and support staff do an amazing job for these young people despite these circumstances, but they need more backing from the government in the form of sufficient funding, and a system which is more streamlined and less bureaucratic.”

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A DfE spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting the safety and wellbeing of children with special educational needs and disabilities, and are working to ensure they get the help they need during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Only those with the most complex needs will require an education, health and care plan, but every child deserves the opportunity to thrive in education.

“Our SEND review will look at how to improve the whole system for those children, young people and their families, who need additional help to access the support they need.”

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