England’s special education system is on its knees

HAYLEY HARDING son, born in 2014, started crawling late, around the time the other children were learning to walk. Preschool staff warned that his speech was delayed and his concentration span was short. At the age of four, he was diagnosed with autism, of a kind that doctors and teachers said he couldn’t handle in a normal classroom. But when his mother started jumping through the hoops needed to get him into a special school, his local council refused to even see him for an assessment. It seemed “unfathomable”, says Ms Harding, that a child who “couldn’t hold a pencil for five seconds” was abandoned by authorities.

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These days, she leads a group that campaigns to improve the schooling of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in his south London neighborhood. Similar groups were created all over England. The government seems to agree that children with SEND don’t get enough support. The question is whether a long-delayed review, due out in the next few weeks, can change that.

Around 1.4 million schoolchildren in England, or 16% of all pupils, have some special need. Those with common difficulties such as dyslexia can get occasional extra lessons or the attention of a teaching assistant, paid for by their school. The approximately 325,000 people who face the greatest challenges, such as blindness or Down syndrome, receive more. Their needs are detailed in education, health and legally binding care (EHC) plans drawn up by local councils. Slightly less than half of them are educated outside mainstream schools.

Some children with severe SEND will never reach the usual academic milestones. But those with more minor conditions should be able to do so, if given enough support. With this in mind, success across the group seems weak. In 2018, only about 14% of children with SEND in public schools, it went well GCSEs in math and English, compared to 48% of their peers. They make up about half of children expelled from public schools for behavioral offenses. Low grades not only limit their opportunities, but complicate efforts to narrow the gaps between rich and poor students, because children with additional needs are more likely than others to come from disadvantaged homes.

The proportion of children identified by schools and councils as having special educational needs varies greatly from region to region, from 7% to 17%. Overall, however, the trend is upward. The number of students classified as having the most severe needs is increasing the fastest, for reasons that remain highly contested. Their ranks have grown by almost 40% in five years.

Councils say central government funding is lagging behind growing demand. Two-fifths of children who request a EHC plan, required for the most expensive aid, wait more than half a school year to be evaluated. The number of furious parents taking local authorities to court has doubled since 2014. Almost all complaints are accepted. The tensions caused by the pandemic have exacerbated conflicts between parents, schools and local authorities. Children with the most severe needs were allowed to attend school during the closures, but no more than half did so at any time.

Any new effort to fix special education will have to address recent failures. Parents’ expectations were reinforced by changes in 2014, intended to give them more say in the help their children receive. But the councils say they have been given new jobs, such as helping young school leavers with special needs up to the age of 25, without enough extra money. parents and some deputyThey hope the government will be tough on local authorities they see as shunned. But they also fear the government is tightening the rules on which children are eligible for extra help, in order to save money.

Improving how mainstream schools handle milder difficulties could bring the greatest benefits. Failing to help children early can mean small problems become big problems. But making schools more inclusive can also be the trickiest part of the puzzle. Parents of children with SEND generally argue that efforts to raise school standards, for example through grading based on exam results, have made schools less welcoming.

Recent government rhetoric about improving classroom behavior has also made parents nervous. The way money is allocated to schools gives school leaders little incentive to do the right thing for children with disabilities. SEND. Schools that put a lot of effort into their teaching tend to attract more such students. Their reward is higher costs and possibly lower ranking positions.

Mrs Harding’s son is now seven. He attends a school for autistic children attached to a regular primary. It’s ideal. But this was only arranged after she began to bring her advice to court – a time-consuming and delicate task for which she was exceptionally well placed, being a lawyer. Only parents who are educated, know their children’s rights and can afford lawyers, she says, can navigate the system.

This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline ‘SEND HELP’

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