The special school sector is at breaking point


By Pauline Holbrook, Head of SEND

Special schools provide excellent outcomes for some of our most complex learners. They are led and staffed by colleagues who understand the needs of individual learners. They have excellent relationships with families and work tirelessly to meet an ever-growing group of learners, with a wider range of needs than ever before.

Special schools around the country are working at – and in many instances above – their planned places. The government’s statistics give an insight into why this is the case.

  • The number of children and young people with EHC plans increased to 576,000, as at census day in January 2024, up by 11.4% from 2023.
  • The number of new EHC plans which started during 2023 increased by 17,722 (26.6%) from 2022.

Not only are special schools often working at or above their PAN, they are also increasingly being expected to undertake more and more duties beyond those of providing an appropriate education. Our sector is working on the absolute limits of what is safe. Many of the families with children with additional needs, whether in specialist provision or mainstream, are concerned for their child’s future. The stress and distress of these families is often being addressed by schools. The families we serve are looking to us and there is a real danger that we are failing these children and their families. It is not acceptable to ask schools or families to work to a political timeframe. It is imperative that we examine these issues now, in order that we do not create further issues in the future when unmet needs as children, translates to adults without meaningful destinations.

Headteachers of special schools are reporting that they are spending up to two days a week preparing for and attending tribunals, after saying that they are unable to meet the needs of a particular learner within their school. This is not something they say lightly. This is not what these headteachers want or should be doing, as it is taking them away from strategic planning to ensure the needs of each individual learner already in their school(s) are met. Data shows that:

The financial pressures on local authorities have become more visible and urgent, with 38 LAs entering into bailout agreements with government. In these “safety valve” deals, they receive some extra funding in return for an agreement to cut SEND deficits.

In a BBC interview Catriona Moore from the charity Independent Provider of Special Education Advice (IPSEA), says some appear to be trying to reduce their legal obligations by reducing the number of EHCPs issued. She said what they found was ”very little focus on children’s needs” and much more on “the financial bottom line”.

What we know so far about what political parties have in their manifestos for SEND.

  • Conservatives say they would deliver on a promise of 15 more special schools.
  • Labour promise to increase early intervention and support in mainstream schools.
  • Lib Dems say they would establish a national body for SEND to manage funding and give local authorities additional funding to meet the rising demand.
  • The Greens say they would push for £5bn of SEND investment within mainstream schools.
  • Reform UK did not mention Send in their “contract”.

Unsurprisingly, very little is being said about SEND. It is interesting though that both Labour and the Greens talk about more support for mainstream schools in relation to SEND. We also know that the current government are seeking for more SEND learners to remain in mainstream. I am concerned that there is a belief that mainstream is better than special for SEND – where is the evidence?

I would suggest that along with points I made in my previous SEND blog that the government in power following the election looks to:

  • Accelerate the discussion relating to an update to the funding formula.
  • Ensure that place planning (at a local level) is adequate to meet the rising demand for special school places at this moment in time.
  • Ensures that the above is not conducted on a spreadsheet but in person to ensure that the schools are adequately equipped and designed to meet the complexity of need of those being placed there.
  • Strengthen the law to ensure that the EHC plans are fully co-ordinated and funded by the right service and that education is not constantly picking up the responsibilities of others.
  • Take time to talk to and visit special schools to really understand the issues facing the sector allowing them to develop a cross-party strategic plan which ensures SEND and hopefully the wider education system is no longer a political football.

Read more: We know that the SEND figures are rising year on year


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