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Campaigners warn that special needs children have been forced out of mainstream schools

The i logo The i 20/08/2019
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The number of children with special needs in mainstream schools in England has fallen by almost a quarter in seven years – despite pupils with learning difficulties having a legal entitlement to a place in mainstream education wherever possible.

An analysis of official figures for i suggests that thousands of children who require additional help with learning are ending up in dedicated special schools rather than having their needs met while being taught among pupils of all abilities.

Campaigners have issued a strong warning that children with special educational needs (Sen) are increasingly being forced out of mainstream education despite a 2014 law which requires local authorities to ensure that these children are offered a mainstream place in nearly all cases.

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There are some 1.2 million children in England identified as having special educational needs. But the number of those attending a mainstream primary or secondary in England fell by 24 per cent between 2012 and 2019, according to an analysis of Department for Education figures by the JPI Media Data Unit. At the same time, the number attending designated special schools rose by almost a third over the same period. In the case of one local authority – North East Lincolnshire – the number of Sen children in mainstream secondary schools fell by 63 per cent.

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Scotland's drive for inclusion

By contrast, Scotland has seen a sharp rise in the number of children with additional learning needs in mainstream schools after the Scottish government launched a drive for greater inclusion. In Wales and Northern Ireland, where education policy is also devolved, the number in mainstream schools has remained stable at about 22 per cent.

Parents of Sen children have spoken of an increasing struggle to ensure their offspring are provided for in a mainstream environment. Leading disability education charity, the Alliance for Inclusive Education (Allfie), accused the Government of effectively perpetuating the segregation of people with disabilities in England as schools struggle with budget cuts.

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The Department for Education said there was a requirement for all schools to be inclusive and that the vast majority – some 82 per cent – of all Sen pupils in England were in state-funded mainstream schools.

A spokesperson said: “Additionally, we have created new special schools in response to the increasing number of pupils with complex special educational needs and are committed to delivering even more provision to ensure every child is able to access the education they need.”

'Hostile education system'

Lucy Bartley with son Samuel, 17, who was educated in mainstream schools

Lucy Bartley’s son Samuel, aged 17, has just finished year 11 and has an EHCP. Samuel was born with spina bifida, hydrocephalus and hemiplegia. He has both physical and learning disabilities and has attended both mainstream primary and secondary schools in south-west London. He has two sisters. Lucy is a special educational needs disability advocate.

Lucy said: “Instinctively when Samuel was born, I knew he shouldn’t be treated differently from his sisters. Why shouldn’t he go to the same nursery as his sisters? And their relationship has always been so important so why would I separate them almost intentionally?

“I’ve always had the strongly held belief that Samuel has as much right to experience things as our girls and he’s part of our family, not separated off.

Lucy said the family “had a battle” getting Samuel into the local primary school his older sister attended. They ended up fighting the matter at a tribunal, which they won.

Lucy said: “My only reservation about sending Samuel to a mainstream school was that he was the sole wheelchair user. which I think was a big thing in his school environment. It’s all or nothing. The alternative would have been for him to go to a special school where say 60% are wheelchair users. You’ve got this system which basically enshrines that segregation. I know from Samuel’s perspective he felt different and a bit lonely part of the time because there has been no one else and he’s been aware he has been the only wheelchair user.”

“Samuel’s secondary school has been very good at really facilitating both the curriculum and courses that he needed but also in supporting his physical and learning needs and implementing his education and health care plan (EHCP). That’s partially been down to building relationships. I always get to know staff in the schools and ensure there’s trust and goodwill between us.

“You’ve got to build relationships and you’ve got to know the school - particularly the head teacher so they can be confident they can meet your child’s needs and so they can see the benefit of your child going to that school in terms of their reputation. I can genuinely say we’ve had emails from some of Samuel’s teachers who have said it’s such a privilege to teach him and they’ve learnt so much from the experience.”

She said: “We have a fairly toxic and I would argue a hostile education system with the fact that the emphasis is all on results and attainment and schools’ reputations.”

She added: “What happened is the EHCP's are being viewed as routes into special segregated provision and are incompatible with mainstream.”

Education system divide

It is at first glance, a contrasting tale of two education systems. While in England, the number of special needs pupils attending mainstream schools has plummeted, the trend in Scotland has headed sharply in the opposite direction.

Between 2011/12 and 2018/19, the proportion of children with Additional Support Needs (ASN) in Scottish mainstream schools nearly doubled from just under 17 per cent to nearly 30 per cent.

In the space of seven years, Scotland has gone from being the UK’s worst performer in this area to its best following the decision of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party government to pursue greater inclusion.

However, one frontline worker has told i that the reality can differ from the statistics with some ASN pupils only nominally in a mainstream school because they spend their days in a separate unit or building away from pupils with other abilities.

'Major catch-up'

The number of children with special needs in mainstream schools in England has fallen by almost a quarter in seven years (Photo: Shutterstock)

One Edinburgh-based pupil support assistant, who has asked i not to reveal his name, said that implementation of the policy was “still playing major catch-up”.

He said: “By sticking a kid in a mainstream school but in a segregated department, or even an outbuilding at times, all you are doing is displacing the issue. You’re not dealing with it and these children are not fully integrated.”

The number of children registered as ASN in Scottish schools has risen by nearly 70 per cent since 2012 to almost 200,000 last year. At the same time, the number of children attending dedicated special schools has fallen only modestly by 1.9 per cent over the same period.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “All children and young people should receive the support they need to reach their learning potential and all teachers provide support to pupils with additional support needs, not just ‘support for learning’ staff.”

'Whole system needs to be reassessed'

Jack*, supply pupil support assistant in mainstream and special schools in Edinburgh.

Jack* said:“As someone who has worked one on one with someone with complex disabilities I wonder just how inclusive inclusive education is,” he said.

“The legislation has led but the actual logistics are still playing catch up. By sticking a kid in a mainstream school but in a segregated department or even an outbuilding at times all you are doing is displacing the issue, you’re not dealing with it and these children are not being fully integrated.

“As positive and as ethical as the drive for inclusion has been in recent years the needs of children in special schools has become increasingly diverse,” he said. “The drive for inclusion has had a two-fold effect. It means mainstream schools in Scotland are dealing with more children with ASN but it also means special schools are becoming increasingly specialised. Special schools are like a battleground just now.”

“For those that are on supply and effectively zero hours, day in and day out they are put in situations they can’t cope with.”

“All you need to work with a child with complex additional needs is to have the appropriate disclosures statements signed off,” he said. “You end up in a situation where a lack of qualified, contracted workers results in potentially under qualified, zero hours supply workers filling in the gaps. These more often than not provide short term relief for the school but at the expense of the children they work with.”

“It’s not the schools as such that are getting it wrong, it’s a governmental position and they’ve got their head in the sand. From the top down, the whole system needs to be reassessed.

“There seems to be an idealistic vision of schools being wholly inclusive and every individual child’s needs are being met. Of course ethically and morally that is great but the implementation of that is still paying major catch up which is to the detriment of the professionals that work there and the very child it’s meant to support.”

*Names have been changed as the case study still works in the sector.

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