11 Dec

The Rationale for a Strategic National Model for Special School Places

My personal philosophy has always been that we need different types of school within our education system so that all learners can meet their full potential. Inclusion is not a place, yet creating an appropriate environment for learners can make a school or setting more inclusive. When it comes to children and young people with the most complex needs (i.e. those with statements or Education, Health and Care plans) it is clear to me that sometimes mainstream schools are the most appropriate setting and sometimes special schools are the most appropriate setting. It depends upon the individual learner and their particular circumstances.

The organisation for which I am Chief Executive (nasen – National Association of Special Educational needs, www.nasen.org.uk) has been a champion, friend and protector of both mainstream and special schools since its inception in 1992. nasen recognises the challenges facing both mainstream and special schools and one particular issue facing both types of school at the moment is the lack of a strategic national model for special schools.

Within mainstream schools, key aspects of the assessment landscape can have a negative impact on learners with SEND. At primary level, we have a system now that requires schools to report where learners are in terms of age-related expectation. For too many learners, this means consistently telling them they are working below age-related expectation and then, at the end of year 6, telling them they not ‘secondary-school ready’. At secondary level, Progress-8 has been cited as good for all learners, including those with SEND, because it focuses on progress rather than attainment. Whilst this seems sensible in principle, the reality is that some learners are experiencing a narrowing of what is supposed to be a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum to focus on those subjects that count towards the Progress-8 ‘buckets’. Some qualifications that are highly appropriate for individual learners are not deemed as high-quality qualifications, so they are excluded from Progress-8 and in too many cases removed from the curriculum as a direct result.

The notion of outcomes must be a much broader notion than simply academic grades. If children and young people, and their parents and carers, were asked what they would want from a quality education system to prepare them for adulthood, I suspect it would be more than just a good Progress-8 score. At it stands now, a small number of learners with SEND in a particular school cohort can have a significant impact on both Progress-8 and Attainment-8 scores. This is problematic because accountability in schools is primarily about academic progress and outcomes with limited, if any, incentive to be more inclusive beyond the moral imperative to do the right thing. Schools are effectively penalised for being inclusive and when you put this alongside the current challenges of limited funding and resources, it is no surprise that in some cases there is a push away from mainstream schools for learners with SEND.

Within special schools, there is a major capacity problem. The push away from mainstream schools is resulting in a significant increase in both the number of home educated children and admissions to special schools. This is compounded by a pull towards special schools as a result of smaller class sizes, individualised curricula and greater access to specialist expertise. Lots of special schools have waiting lists and are working to try and expand the number of places they can offer. However, the lack of any strategic national model for special school places means that the demand is not able to be met in lots of areas. Indeed, some children are being sent to schools and settings in other Local Authorities at a significant cost because local capacity is limited.

To return to my original point, I am supportive of both mainstream and special schools, but some strategic vision around special school places is needed at a national level to ensure both can operate effectively. From 2007 to 2017, the proportion of children with statements or EHC plans attending maintained or non-maintained special schools rose from 38% to 45%. From 2010 (earliest available data) to 2017, the number of maintained and non-maintained special schools reduced by 17, from 1054 to 1037.   An increase on this scale in the context of rising pupil numbers and fewer schools is unsustainable.

This gives rise to a key question that could be addressed through a strategic national model for special school places: what proportion of children and young people with statements or EHCPs do we expect will need to attend a special school to have their needs met?

Given my initial premise that both mainstream and special schools can meet the needs of learners with SEND, it seems clear that there should be a sensible balance between the two. So it seems like common sense to have a broad idea of what this balance should be, so it can be properly planned for at both a local and a national level. Without a strategic national model, the push and pull factors I have described will create an increasing demand for special school places and within 70 years, 100% of children with EHCPs will be attending special schools. This would be a national tragedy for both the mainstream sector and the special sector and not at all in the interests of children and young people or in the spirit of inclusion.

More immediately, we need to consider that the current trend will mean that more than 50% of children with EHCPs will be attending special schools by 2024. This is certainly a tipping point and so we must develop a strategy for school places now in the national interest of all children and young people.

Data sources and calculations

Dr Adam Boddison (nasen representative)