Towards the end of the last academic year the DfE published a document which sets out their national projected pupil numbers for the next seven years. The document can be found here:
Whilst there is a significant increase in both primary (335,000 or c. 8%) and secondary (547,000 or c.20%), the data provided for special school placements is extraordinary. The projected numbers are an increase of 27,000 pupils or c.33%.
The analysis of the figures is sparse and whilst it addresses the increases in early years, primary and secondary, it fails to analyse the data associated with special schools.
There are however two main areas for consideration with regard to this projected increase. Why is such a significant increase predicted? How will the needs of those additional pupils be met?
I’m not sure I can explain the why, but a contributing factor may include advances in medical science, which are certainly leading to children arriving at school with multiple complex medical needs, who may not have had the opportunity to attend school previously due to the life limiting nature of those needs. There is also the possibility of schools being less able or indeed less willing to accommodate the needs of children with SEND within mainstream settings. However I am not sure that those alone can account for such a significant increase. It is something of a puzzle.
However it is worth noting that the data shows that until 2010 the special school population had been in gentle decline before stabilising at around 77,000 children. From 2010 the population began to increase steadily and the figures may just be a crude extrapolation of that increase. This may or may not be a fair presumption, without any analysis it is difficult to be sure. What it does mean is that the historic rule of thumb figure of approximately 1% of children attending a special school (1.2% in 2015) is, according to the data, going to change dramatically. By 2024 this will have risen to 1.4 %.
If you consider the school in which I work, with just over a hundred pupils and a 2:1 staffing ratio on the basis of one teacher with three teaching assistants per class, you are looking at classroom space equivalent to 270 new schools and 13,500 staff, 3375 of whom will need to be teachers. In seven years! See why I think we need special education represented in Get into Teaching.
So how are we going to be able to address the impact of this predicted increase in demand for places in our special schools? How are we going to ensure that within just seven years children with SEND are able to access excellence in greater volume than ever? Well we can’t do it alone. I think the time has come to consider more fully a move away from the often black and white choice between mainstream and special, the system will be compelled to consider a third way.
There are a number of ways in which we could begin to address this challenge, but if it is to work it will need partnership because this is not just an issue about further investment in special schools. Mainstream schools will in all likelihood have to continue to educate those children who may ordinarily have benefited from a special school placement.
So how could special schools be used to support the mitigation of the upcoming capacity crisis? Here are a few thoughts:
Assessment Nursery Provision:
It used to be that we had an inclusive assessment nursery, collocated on a mainstream site. Children would arrive without necessarily requiring a statement in order to have a couple of years benefiting from specialist expertise and highly detailed assessment of individual developmental progress. They were essentially getting to access the pedagogical characteristics of a special school education as a proactive intervention in order to establish whether they needed, long term, a special school placement. As such many of the children who came to us would go on to successfully transfer to mainstream, having had two years of expert input and many of the developmental gaps addressed. We also had significant numbers of pupils who did come to us but then transferred a few years later back into mainstream having benefited from a bit more time in our provision.
Unfortunately now we no longer have this resource to draw upon. Children are now more likely to go straight into the mainstream system and our intake in characterised by those who clearly have a severe or profound and multiple learning disability, or those for whom a mainstream placement has broken down. As such very few of our pupils transfer back into mainstream now, the experience of mainstream failing them and of them ‘failing’ has a profound effect. More concerning is that the scale of developmental delay this results in often means that its takes significantly longer to address the broad range of social, emotional, behavioural and intellectual needs the children present with. The gap has, in many cases, become insurmountable.
A return to a systematic approach to preschool placement in specialist inclusive assessment nurseries may go some way to ensuring that less pupils need a long term placement in a special school. By advocating a proactive approach of referral to special school provision at this stage we may be able to ensure that there are a greater number of pupils successfully transferring from special education into mainstream rather than focusing on the deficit model based approach of special schools being the education of last resort.
Given that there is already a capacity issue in special schools with many being full and in some parts of the country a significant waiting list already in operation, the data means that the notion of every teacher being a teacher of SEND is going to take on even greater significance. Irrespective of the where you sit on the inclusion continuum, for many families the choice of a special school education is one which is likely to become less readily available. This means that these children will remain in mainstream and will continue to have an entitlement to have their educational needs met. As such we will need to grasp the nettle that is the variability of SEND professional development, in terms of breadth and depth of opportunity and quality. Having said that it is not possible within the context of the existing ITE structures to expect it to be addressed solely as part of QTS, there is only so much time and many competing priorities. Therefore we need to be considering how we can build a much more cohesive and comprehensive post qualification landscape for SEND that equips schools with the staff with the necessary expertise, ensuring that increasing numbers of pupils with an increasing complexity of need can be taught effectively. This needs to be considered as being in addition to the National SENCO Award, with a focus on the pedagogy and practise associated with the education of children with SEND for those who don’t have an administrative or legislative responsibility. Perhaps a form of National Professional Qualification for SEND with the delivery supported by special schools within the context of a Teaching Schools Alliance.
My experience of Outreach has often been characterised by the “Houston, we have a problem” approach to early intervention. A move away from seeing Outreach as being a responsive solution to a situation that has reached a critical point would potentially serve everyone better. This may result in children, who currently reach a point of no return, having their needs met far more proactively and as such enabling them to successfully remain within the mainstream system. However this will need a more strategic plan regarding both the creation of capacity within the specialist sector and in recognising the early indicators that support is required. It will need to be an approach characterised by open and honest professional reflection in which a recognition of where needs are not being met is considered a professional strength rather than something to hide. One where support will be sustained and focussing on developing expertise as part of an active partnership leading to improved knowledge and understanding.
Peripatetic SEND provision:
In addition to Outreach provision, the needs of schools and the children who attend them may be well served by having MAT or school partnership employed specialists linked with the local special school who have defined allocations of time to work with the schools making up the partnership. A SEND timeshare of expertise. This approach may work to head off the crises which often lead to the movement of children out of mainstream, but may also help to address the range of challenges faced within the classroom in a less reactive manner. It could also be used to develop the knowledge and skills within the participating schools, investing in the capability of the staff to meet the needs of all. I wonder what impact a day a week of specialist expertise would have, not as an intervention, but as part of the fabric of the school’s offer.
These are just a few thoughts about what special schools may be able to offer, some of which already occur in pockets, but it will amount to nothing if there isn’t a systematic analysis of what appears to be something of a major issue on the horizon. It is exactly the kind of situation that requires a national response supported by local implementation, the kind of situation that could drive the specialist and mainstream sectors into a better structured collaboration. A move towards a little bit more grey.