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Postcode lottery in SEN support

There are significant inconsistencies in how children with special educational needs and disabilities in England are identified and supported, the Education Policy Institute has warned.

Access to support is decided by a “postcode lottery” with the chances of receiving SEND support from the school or from the local authority largely dictated by the school that a child attends, rather than their individual circumstances.

“The most important finding from this report is that which primary school a child attends makes more difference to their chances of being identified with SEND than anything about them as an individual, their experiences or what local authority they live in. The lottery is mostly at school level, with more than half of the differences in identification explained by the school attended,” said the report.

“This is most unusual in education research and in stark contrast to school attainment, where between-school differences explain only a small minority of the differences in pupil test results. Which school a child goes to matters an awful lot to whether they receive SEND support at both the lower and higher levels. The system of assessment is inconsistent and not well adapted to children’s individual needs,” it added.

Four in 10 of all pupils in England are recorded as having SEND at some point during their time at school.

Key findings of the report include:

- SEND identification varies widely across England, and when examining what is behind this (at primary school level), differences between schools account for a large majority (two-thirds) of this variation in identification.

- The school that a child attends therefore makes far greater difference to their chances of being identified with SEND than other factors, such as children’s individual learning needs or experiences.

- At a school level, children attending academy schools are half as likely to be identified as having SEND by their local authority than those attending other schools.

- For more severe needs, children from the most disadvantaged local authorities are less likely to be identified with SEND than children of similar backgrounds who live in more affluent areas. Families in poorer areas appear to have more limited support for their children and are likely to be subject to higher thresholds for accessing support.

- Children who have suffered abuse or neglect (those with child protection plans) also have a reduced chance of being identified with SEND compared with otherwise similar children and securing support for any additional learning needs.

The report identified a mismatch between what schools focus on in assessing SEND needs and what local authorities focus on at the higher level of assessment. Early Years Foundation Stage Profile assessments at age five have large effects on the chances of an individual child being identified with SEND. But whereas schools focus mostly on communication, language and literacy skills, local authorities make decisions that are more aligned with personal, social and emotional development. This is not fully explained by different primary need types at the two support levels. Many important later life outcomes such as participation in post-16 education, adult employment and wages, involvement with crime and adult health status depend on personal, social and emotional development, but it is not as strong a predictor of accessing SEND support in primary school as this would suggest.

Academy schools are associated with depressed chances of being identified with SEND. This is not just the case for children attending academies; in local authorities with the highest proportions of academy primary schools, the chances of being identified with SEND at the higher level are just one tenth of those in local authorities with the fewest academies. This is not explained by deprivation levels, ethnic mix or a range of other factors.

At the school level, children who attend academies have reduced chances of being identified with SEND, by one third at the lower level and by one half at the higher level. These are short-term effects over two years following conversion and researchers say they do not know if they will persist but given the range of controlled factors at individual and school level, they are likely to indicate under-identification.

The report, funded by The Nuffield Foundation, calls for improvements in assessing SEND within schools.

The EPI would like to see increased specialist training and support for teachers and school leaders, a national framework setting out minimum standards of support for children with SEND in mainstream schools and a greater focus in primary schools on the role of children’s personal, social and emotional development.

There should be concerted efforts from authorities to reaching highly vulnerable children who require specialised learning support, who may be less visible in the system and a SEND funding system that is far more responsive to pupils’ needs.

“A greater whole school focus on personal, social and emotional development could assist in both prevention and early identification of difficulties,” the report concludes.

Identifying pupils with special educational needs and disabilities

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