Thousands of children with special educational ne and disabilities are waiting for a school place or are being educated at home, and many more are excluded, prompting fears that schools in England are becoming less inclusive.
According to Guardian analysis of Department for Education statistics, just under 4,500 pupils with statutory rights to special ne support were awaiting suitable provision or being home-schooled at the start of the year.
Campaigners say the real figure is far higher because the DfE data does not include Send pupils who don’t have a special ne statement or an education health and care plan, documents that guaranteetheir statutory rights to additional support.
More than 1.2 million children, or about 15% or all students in England have some kind of special educational need, but only about 253,000 have special educational ne statements or education health and care plans.
There is also growing concern that children with special ne are particularly vulnerable to being taken off the rolls by schools that are under pressure, both financially because of budget cuts and academically to improve their exam results.
“We are not sure to what degree off-rolling takes place, but the target-driven education system we have means teachers and headteachers don’t want difficult children on their rolls,” said one local government analyst.
“Pupils get excluded on tenuous grounds, or teachers will tell parents at open days, ‘you shouldn’t send your child here – they will get a better education at a school down the road.’ It’s subtle, but we know it happens.”
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, called on ministers to consider imposing financial penalties on schools found to be off-rolling. “I have become more and more convinced that some schools are seeking to improve their overall exam results by removing vulnerable children from the school roll,” she said. “Sadly this can include children with Send, who have no option but to go into inappropriate alternative provision or home education.”
Anntoinette Bramble, the chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, echoed Longfield’s concerns. She said: “We want to work with the DfE to get a clear picture of the extent of this practice and how it can be reduced.”
DfE data shows the number of Send students “awaiting provision”, or waiting for a school place that meets the requirements of their plan, rose from 701 in 2010 to 2,060 at the start of this year. About 2,400 other students were not at school because their parents had made “other arrangements”, which generally means home education. This figure increased by 77% during the same period, up from 1,355 in 2010.
One mother, whose 13-year-old autistic daughter has been out of school for 10 months and is now awaiting a placement at a specialist school, described the challenges of trying to home-educate. “It’s a difficult thing to do. I’ve had to put my life on hold,” she said.
“I’m absolutely exhausted. It’s affecting our relationship. She’s very depressed. She feels like no one wants her. She’s incredibly lonely and bored all the time. She doesn’t want to leave her room half the time.”
Tania Tirraoro, the chief executive of Special Ne Jungle, a parent-led support group, said the real number of children with Send being educated at home was unknown. “These families may be home-educating because they have no other choice: either they’ve been ‘encouraged’ by the school to remove the child to avoid exclusion, or the child has become unable to cope with the school environment,” she said.
“These children are being denied the educational opportunities others take for granted, because of a broken Send system that’s starved of cash and by a promised culture change that’s failed to materialise.”
Children with Send are also disproportionately removed from lessons as a result of exclusions. They made up 46.7% of permanent exclusions and 44.9% of fixed-period exclusions in 2016-17, but 14% of the student population.
More than 6.18% of pupils with Send support and 6.44% with Send statements or plans received a fixed-term exclusion in 2016-17 academic year, compared with just 1.63% of students with no Send. A fixed-term exclusion is a temporary suspension from school for a set number of days.
Rosamund McNeil, the assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Lots of parents are aware that schools are becoming more pressurised places with a narrow focus on exam results. Because of the exam factory culture and because of cuts, many schools are becoming less inclusive.”
Research by the charity Ambitious About Autism has revealed the impact of school exclusions on family life. A survey of 900 parents and carers of children with autism found that 30% had been forced to give up their job as a result, 29% said they had missed days from work and 20% had gone part-time.
Parents who took part in the survey also reported an increase in unlawful exclusions, with 56% saying their child had been sent home early, asked to work on a reduced timetable or banned from a school trip without an official letter being received, up from 45% in 2016.
Jolanta Lasota, the charity’s chief executive, said: “These add up to hundr of hours of missed education, but they slip under the radar because they are not officially recorded. We must make sure schools are held to account if they break exclusions rules.” Official exclusions of autistic pupils have increased by nearly 60% since 2011.
A DfE spokesperson said a government review of exclusions was under way. “All schools have a duty to meet the ne of any pupils with Send,” they said. “Where an EHCP [education health and care plan] names a school, that school must admit the child and school admissions can still be arranged for those pupils waiting for their final EHCPs.
“It is not acceptable for schools to find ways to remove pupils outside of the formal exclusions system. Every school is a school for pupils with Send – and every teacher is a teacher of Send pupils.”
Additional reporting by Katrine Schow Madsen