“Toxic environment” for special needs children

Government’s results-driven system for English schools creates “toxic environment” for special needs children

Education journalist Warwick Mansell looks at the House of Commons Education Select Committee's investigation into provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

Class with child in wheelchair

The way England’s school system has been set up is harming the interests of some of its most vulnerable pupils.

This is the damning implication of evidence submitted to the recent Education Select Committee’s investigation into provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

You may have missed this in media summaries of this multi-faceted, 130-page report, as headlines understandably focused on the bureaucratic struggles that parents can face in fighting for support for their child, and funding difficulties.

Yet anyone reading the report closely would also have become concerned by the evidence it presented on how the government’s accountability, curriculum and organisational control structures for English schools are impacting on SEND pupils, including incentivising institutions to push them out to be educated elsewhere.

The 18-month inquiry, including testimonies from 70 witnesses and more than 700 written submissions, concluded that various problems in the system were pushing some schools to become “less inclusive”.

It reported that this had “resulted in children with SEND becoming victims of illegal exclusions, being told not to come on a school trip, to not apply to the school, off-rolled or encouraged to move schools. In England, there are more than 1,500 children with SEND you do not have a school place, and some children are waiting for up to two years for a place.”

It added: “We heard countless examples of local authorities not meeting their statutory duties, and of schools deliberately or otherwise off-rolling, excluding and even discouraging parents from sending pupils to their schools.”

Prospect submission

This sounds devastating enough. But arguably even more revealing were the more than 20 evidence submissions, including from national organisations ranging from unions to SEND representatives and local authorities, which the committee referenced as backing up these specific points.

In its own submission, Prospect’s Education and Children’s Services Group warned that the non-inclusive way that England’s school accountability and curriculum systems had been set up had created a “toxic environment”, in which institutions were being incentivised not to take into account the needs of all pupils, and those with SEND in particular.

The school accountability system emphasised academic attainment while accountability measures for pastoral care, mental health and SEND were “weak”, Prospect warned. It was to England’s “national shame” that curriculum and assessment systems had not been designed with the needs of all children in mind, as our overly-formal, exam-driven structures were not giving SEND pupils enough opportunities to demonstrate what they could do.

Among the aspects of “collateral damage” which followed, for SEND pupils, were that “un-met needs [are] causing disengagement and associated behaviour difficulties and potential exclusion”; “where a child is persistently unhappy parents become frustrated – and may resort to home education”; and “perverse incentives [on schools] not to include result in children who are ‘hard to place’”.

Evidence submissions from no fewer than nine of England’s local authorities backed up the point that results pressures on schools were leading to side-effects for SEND pupils.

As the organisation Lambeth SEND put it, reporting on a conference of London authorities last year: “Many boroughs reported that some schools are reluctant to admit children with SEND and remove some SEND pupils from the roll informally.”

Cheshire West and Chester council said: “Schools… tell us about the pressure on them to deliver attainment outcomes that are not inclusive.” North Yorkshire council wrote: “Schools are offering an increasingly limited curriculum due to national performance measures and this is having a negative impact on children with SEND.”

Several submissions mentioned problems of inclusion being worse in the academies sector. 

The organisation Headteachers’ Roundtable, which speaks for school leaders, said that funding and accountability pressures meant schools “are being pressured, financially and through accountability, to reduce and/or discourage SEND children on their roll”.

There is something quite close to tragic in an education system, which by definition is supposed to be founded on altruism, or helping others, being made to operate like this.

Deep questions need to be asked about what England’s structure is seeking to achieve, if this is the way that some children who seem most in need of help from our schools can be treated.

Warwick Mansell is an education journalist and editor of Education Uncovered.