1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for Education (the Department) about support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). In September 2019, the previous Committee took evidence from: the Council for Disabled Children and the Special Educational Consortium; the Disabled Children’s Partnership and Sense; the National Network of Parent Carer Forums; and a parent carer and contributor to the Special Needs Jungle website.
2.Children with SEND are among the most vulnerable in the school system. The quality of support they receive affects their well-being, educational attainment, likelihood of subsequent employment, and long-term life prospects. A child or young person has SEND if they have a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age, or a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of facilities generally provided in mainstream schools, and which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her. Children and young people with SEND have diverse needs of different levels of severity, and they may have more than one type of need. The most commonly identified needs are speech, language and communications needs (21.7% of pupils with SEND at January 2019) and moderate learning difficulties (20.4%).
3.At January 2019, 1.3 million pupils in England (14.9% of all pupils) were recorded as having SEND. Of these, 270,800 pupils (20.6% of the total) needing the most support had legally enforceable entitlements to specific packages of support, set out in education, health and care (EHC) plans. The remaining 1,041,500 children with SEND (79.4% of the total) did not have EHC plans but had been identified as needing some additional support at school. At January 2019, 87.5% of pupils with SEND attended mainstream state primary and secondary schools, and most of the remainder attended state special schools.
4.The Department is accountable to Parliament for the system of support and for securing value for money from the funding it provides (£9.4 billion in 2018–19) for schools in England to support pupils with SEND. Local authorities, working with other national and local bodies, have a statutory responsibility to ensure that children with SEND receive the support they need. In September 2014, under the Children and Families Act 2014, the government made substantial changes to how children with SEND are supported. Among the government’s aims for the changes were that children’s needs would be identified earlier, families would be more involved in decisions affecting them, and education, health and care services would be better integrated.
5.In September 2019, the Department announced a review of how the system of support for children with SEND is operating nationally. The review aims to improve services for families who need support, equip staff in schools and colleges to respond effectively to their needs, and end the ‘postcode lottery’ often faced.
6.The Department acknowledged that it was clear the SEND system was not working as well as it should. It said that the announcement of the review was evidence that it did not think the issues could be resolved at local level, and it wanted to review how the system of support was operating as a whole, five years after the 2014 reforms.
7.The Department accepted that the outcomes it expected for children with SEND were generic and that it should make them clearer. It was looking at this issue but noted that it was challenging to quantify what would be an acceptable level of improvement and to establish how it could hold others to account for the outcomes achieved. Nevertheless, the Department emphasised that outcome measures were an important focus of its review of SEND provision.
8.The Department told us it had recently published a feasibility study into carrying out a longitudinal survey of the outcomes achieved by children with SEND and the cost of providing support, which was something that had never been done before, anywhere in the world. Its feasibility study had suggested that this could be done, although it would be hard.
9.The Department also recognised that there were good data already available that it should be making use of. It told us that, as part of its review, it was also talking to parents about outcomes. It wanted to have high aspirations for children with SEND. Many would go on to get good GCSEs or go into higher education, but others would probably never reach that level of attainment so it wanted to understand what good-quality provision would look like for them. It wanted to make sure that children were safe, happy and enjoying their lives, and was looking at whether it could attach some better metrics to that, as well as using attainment data.
10.At January 2019, nearly twice as many boys than girls had been identified as having SEND—20.2% of boys compared with 10.7% of girls, for those aged 5 to 17 in state-funded schools. The proportion of pupils with SEND also varied by ethnicity, from 8.0% of Chinese pupils to 15.5% of black pupils.
11.The Department said that children should have access to the same high-quality support, wherever they lived and whatever their circumstances. It acknowledged, however, that the evidence showed that, while some children received a fantastic level of support, others did not. It told us that the extent of gender disparity differed depending on the type of SEND. For example, there was no difference by gender in the incidence of hearing or visual impairment. On the other hand, more boys than girls were identified with speech and language communication difficulties, and challenging behaviour; while more girls were identified with eating disorders and mental health conditions. Among children with EHC plans, many more boys than girls had autism. The Department suspected that autism in girls may have been under-identified.
12.The Department said that it had not identified regional and local variations by gender in the numbers of children with SEND, but had supported a detailed study by Oxford University that found there was significant regional variation with regard to ethnicity. It told us that it had been hard to pinpoint why there was this variation, but that it could be related to language or deprivation. The Department considered that local areas needed to address the discrepancies themselves, because they understood their local communities better. It had sent each local area’s school improvement team tailored data about ethnicity and SEND, to enable them to compare their position against others, follow up areas of difference, and seek improvements where necessary.
13.EHC plans can be an important means for families to ensure that their children receive the specific support that their assessment has determined they require, as they give legally enforceable entitlements to specific packages of support. At January 2019, the proportion of pupils aged 5 to 15 with EHC plans ranged from 1.0% to 5.9% in different local authorities. The previous Committee heard from the National Network of Parent Carer Forums that parents saw an EHC plan as a “golden ticket” to accessing the support their child and the family needed. More parents are challenging local authorities’ decisions about EHC plans—for example, the number of appeals by parents against local authorities’ refusal to issue an EHC plan rose markedly from 298 in 2013/14 to 526 in 2017/18.
14.Pupils with SEND are far more likely to be permanently excluded from school, or excluded for a fixed period, than pupils without SEND. For example, in 2017/18, pupils with SEND accounted for 44.9% of permanent exclusions and 43.4% of fixed-period exclusions. In May 2019, the Timpson review of school exclusions concluded that vulnerable groups of children were more likely to be excluded and that more should be done to ensure that exclusion was used consistently and fairly.
15.The Department emphasised that, where an exclusion was the last resort, it was the right of the school and the headteacher to make that decision. However, it acknowledged that it had been clear from the data for a long time that children with SEND were disproportionately excluded.
16.The Department considered that early intervention was key to managing exclusions, making sure that schools were supported to deal with children who had challenging behaviour. It had identified that children’s needs were not being met sufficiently early, and said it was exploring what more it could do about this. It wanted to avoid situations in which a child was excluded at the age of 15 for something that could have been addressed earlier.
17.The previous Committee heard from the National Network of Parent Carer Forums that early intervention was not happening, and that parents were not being listened to, meaning young people were left to get to a crisis point and to fail. The Special Educational Consortium said that some pupils with SEND were repeatedly excluded from school from a young age for their behaviour. It considered this was often linked to children not developing communication skills at an early age.
18.The Department told us that it had a number of measures to help schools support children with challenging behaviour, such as behaviour hubs, which should have an impact on pupils with SEND. It was also working jointly with NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care to establish mental health support teams in schools in 20% to 25% of areas by 2023. The teams would provide additional support and expertise within schools, helping children to manage anxiety and low-level behavioural issues earlier.
19.The Department told us that it had also been discussing with the Department of Health and Social Care support for schools in dealing with children who may have a combination of autism spectrum disorder and mental health concerns. The aim was to put support and behaviour management strategies in place locally to help those children stay in school, or to move to a school that would better meet their needs.
20.The Department relies on Ofsted inspections to know how well individual schools are meeting the needs of children with SEND. However, how often any mainstream school is inspected and the extent to which the inspectors examine SEND provision depend heavily on how Ofsted previously graded the school. Ofsted carries out full inspections of schools previously graded as ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’, or where it has specific concerns, and inspectors should take account of provision for pupils with SEND in forming their judgements about the school. Ofsted inspects schools previously graded as ‘good’ (around two-thirds of all schools) usually through a short inspection, which may or may not focus on provision for pupils with SEND.
21.In addition, schools that Ofsted has previously graded as ‘outstanding’ have been exempt from routine re-inspection. At August 2018, 1,962 schools graded as outstanding had not been inspected for six years or more, meaning little up-to-date assurance was available about those schools’ provision for pupils with SEND. Some outstanding schools had not been inspected for 10 years or more. The Department accepted that outstanding schools had not been inspected for some time, but noted that Ofsted was now starting to inspect outstanding schools again.
22.The new inspection framework that Ofsted inspectors have been using since September 2019 provides for more explicit consideration of how well schools are meeting the needs of children with SEND. The Department said that it had found that 98% of inspection reports under the new framework had addressed SEND provision explicitly and that the reports had mentioned SEND an average of 2.4 times. The Department also emphasised that all Ofsted inspectors had been trained in how to identify good-quality SEND practice in schools, and that inspectors had to include pupils with SEND in their samples of pupils in each school. The previous Committee heard from the National Network of Parent Carer Forums that they welcomed the new inspection framework and considered there was a lot in the framework that was very positive.
23.In 2016, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (the CQC) started joint inspections of how well local authority areas are supporting children and young people with SEND. These local area inspections look at education, health and social care services for each local authority area as a whole and are expected to have covered the whole of England by summer 2021. The Department said that Ofsted and the CQC had been compiling evidence about how well the inspection regime had been going, with a view to informing Ministers’ decisions about the future of the regime.
24.Ofsted and the CQC found significant weakness in half (47 of 94) of the local areas inspected by the end of July 2019. The Department told us that, in these local areas, either the council or the clinical commissioning group, or both, needed to do better. These local areas had been required to set out how they would respond to recommendations in their inspection report. The Department said that Ofsted and the CQC then revisited the areas concerned to determine if they had responded appropriately. Of the first 18 revisits, seven local areas had done all they had been supposed to do, meaning 11 had not.
25.The Department reported that aspects of poor performance in local areas with significant weaknesses included the quality of parent-carer engagement, and whether the EHC process was as speedy as it should be. The previous Committee heard from the National Network of Parent Carer Forums that very often parents did not feel they had been listened to, and that schools had overruled parents’ concerns, which had caused parents to feel frustration in engaging with their children’s schools.
26.The Department noted that around 50% of local areas were not meeting the needs of children and young people with SEND. It had expected that a significant number of local areas would find it challenging to put in place a completely new system following the Children and Families Act 2014, but accepted that it had not thought enough about this in advance. The Department also highlighted that the financial situation that many local authorities and schools faced had become more challenging since the legislation was enacted, and that this helped to explain why some local areas were not meeting the expected standards.
1 C&AG’s Report, Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England, Session 2017–19, HC 2636, 5 September 2019
2 Committee of Public Accounts, Oral evidence, Support for children with special educational needs and disabilities, HC 2050, 30 September 2019
3 C&AG’s Report, paras 1, 4, 7
4 C&AG’s Report, para 1.6
5 C&AG’s Report, paras 1, 3, 1.7
6 C&AG’s Report, paras 4, 11
7 C&AG’s Report, para 5
8 Q 39, Department for Education, ‘Major review into support for children with special educational needs’, 6 September 2019
9 Q 39
10 Q 43
11 Qq 45–46
12 Q 46
13 C&AG’s Report, para 1.4
14 Q 52
15 Qq 10–11
16 Q 49
17 C&AG’s Report, paras 1.10–1.11
18 (Oral evidence on 30 September 2019) Q 32
19 C&AG’s Report, para 3.3, Figure 11
20 Q 18; C&AG’s Report, paras 3.16–3.17
22 Qq 18–19
23 (Oral evidence on 30 September 2019) Qq 3–4
24 (Oral evidence on 30 September 2019) Q 28
25 Q 18
26 Q 27
27 C&AG’s Report, paras 3.5–3.7
28 C&AG’s Report, para 3.8
29 C&AG’s Report, Ofsted’s inspection of schools, Session 2017–19, HC 1004, 21 May 2018, para 10
30 Q 39
31 Q 32, C&AG’s Report, para 3.7
32 Q 32
33 (Oral evidence on 30 September 2019) Q 4
34 Q 33
35 C&AG’s Report, paras 20, 3.21
36 Q 33
37 C&AG’s Report, para 20
38 Q 35
39 Qq 35, 37
40 (Oral evidence on 30 September 2019) Q3
41 Q 38
Published: 6 May 2020