Government policy and where pupils with SEN / disabilities go to school

Brahm Norwichpost by BRAHM NORWICH
Professor of Educational Psychology and Special Educational Needs, University of Exeter

This short piece summaries two trends, the first a longer term trend and the second a short term trend. It is suggested that they may be related:

1. The 30 year trend to reduced national placements in special schools has been reversed:
From 1983, when the 1981 legislation established the general principle to establish the ordinary school placement of children with special educational needs (SEN) was implemented, there was a year on year decrease in the percentage of pupils in English special schools till the early 2000s. Recent analysis of DFE statistics now shows that since 2007 national special school numbers are rising. From 2007 to 2013 there has been a 0.04% rise in special school placements, representing a rise of 8745 special school placements over this short period.

This small but steady rise year on year over 6 years might not continue, but the direction of change is consistent with other evidence about the underlying processes that affect special school placement decisions. One way of understanding this reversal is in terms of how the tensions between raising standards & choice /diversity policies and inclusion policies are managed and resolved.

It is notable that this rising trend started during the Labour period of Government (2007-10) and has persisted through to the current Coalition period (2010-13). Labour had a twin policy commitment to both policy directions, but tended to ignore the tensions and trade-offs. By contrast the Coalition Government has increased standards & choice/ diversity policies while reducing inclusion. The Coalition’s resolution of this tension is discussed below:

The current Government’s policies have these features:
i. Reduced commitment to inclusive education: initially the Government defined its position as redressing Labour’s ‘bias to inclusion’, though it has not changed the original 1981 legislation’s general default position for ordinary school placement. But, the language of inclusion is much reduced as shown in the Draft Code of Practice 2014 (only 4 clear references to inclusion/inclusive: equality and inclusion in early years, in the context of parental choice of special schooling and the reasonable steps top ensure inclusion in the context of inclusion being compatible with efficient education of other children).

ii. Inclusion as private matter: inclusion has been reduced to placement and as a matter for parental choice. Rising special school placements would be acceptable in a choice / diversity understanding of inclusion as this would be seen to reflect parental preferences/choice. However, this assumes that the rise in special school placements reflects genuine rather than ‘constrained’ preferences brought about by the reluctance of schools to accept children with more severe SEND. Voluntary organisations report many such examples.

iii. Raising ‘standards’ and reduced ordinary school tolerance for SEN: A key question is whether schools, especially secondary schools, are more likely to say no to pupils with Statements? Is there a reduced tolerance due to pressures to raise performance progression rates (especially from Key Stage 2 to 4 attainments), which have become more central to Ofsted inspections? This reduced tolerance is sometimes expressed in terms of head teachers stating that the school can ‘no longer meet needs’ and that ’risks to school are too great’…. The pressures on Local authorities are also evident. The example of Barnsley local authority is relevant: in 2007 it had 0.44% (5th least special school user) and this increased in 2013 to 0.70% (46th least special school user) in 2013. A Barnsley spokesperson explained this change in terms of growing parental demand, a strategic commitment to create more special school places to reduce out-of-authority placements and have more places, the standards agenda and a loss of key posts supporting inclusion in mainstream schools.

2. Introducing academies and free schools with the reduced role for local authorities has increased SEN segregation in secondary ordinary schools and probably led to more special school placements:

i. There has been a rapid increase of academies and free schools: by 2013, 2075 secondary schools were either converter academies, sponsored academies or free schools, with 1640 as local authority maintained schools.

ii. The average percentages of pupils with statements in different types of secondary schools were as follows in 2013: from least to most with Statements – 1. Free schools, 2. Converter academies, 3. Maintained schools and 4. Sponsored academies (those required to become academies due to not meeting Ofsted standards or put under DFE pressure to do so because of relatively lower progression rates). In 2013 the percentage of pupils with Statements in sponsored academies was about twice the percentage in free schools.

iii. The significance of this change for special school placements: national statistics show that about 2/3rds of all special school placements are for secondary aged pupils. So, if a parent prefers an ordinary secondary school for their child with a Statement and the schools in the vicinity are academies / free schools, they may find that these schools present themselves as not equipped to provide for their child’s SENs. (There have been some well known Tribunal cases where academies have resisted accepting pupils with Statements, for example, Mossbourne Academy, Hackney).

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