The rise of SEND ‘magnet schools’

The long-awaited SEND review is due in the next few months. Watching closely is a cohort of schools hoping that the report will address a growing gap – one between those schools with high numbers of pupils with SEND, and those with very few
12th January 2022, 12:00pm
Magnet, SEND


The rise of SEND ‘magnet schools’

“There is a large cohort of parents who mention our school on social media all the time,” says Pepe Di’Iasio, headteacher of Wales High School in Sheffield.

Given the current state of SEND provision in England and the hypercritical nature of social media, you might expect this to be a cause for concern, with parents echoing the frustrations of others like them across the country: inclusion has failed, SEND provision is a mess, some schools try their best to deter children with SEND from applying. 

But, in fact, the opposite is true: Di’Iasio reveals that parents are highly positive about the school and its SEND provision.

As a result, he explains, his provision is increasingly becoming a “magnet school”. 

The terms “magnet school” and “honeypot school” are now commonly used to represent the schools that have a percentage of students with SEND on roll that is far higher than the percentage of students with SEND in the local population.

This situation occurs because the school begins to get a reputation for delivering a broad and inclusive curriculum for students with SEND. Parents of children with SEND then promote this to other parents. 

This, combined with other schools having less favourable reputations for SEND provision, means the magnet school then draws in an ever-larger proportion of students with SEND from across the school’s catchment area and beyond - and eventually more than other schools nearby. 

“It’s like having a five-star review on Tripadvisor,” says Di’lasio. 

He is proud of his school’s reputation and that parents feel so compelled to send their children there. However, he is concerned that the situation is becoming unsustainable.

“This year’s open evening was frightening,” says Di’Iasio. “We had parents coming from all over the nearby authorities we serve because of our reputation. That is worrying because, while we want to do the best for these students, how long can we maintain it?”

It’s a question that many schools with high populations of students with SEND - the so-called magnet schools - are asking. They point to the fact that their higher-than-average proportion of students with SEND is not significantly recognised by Ofsted, by the government, by accountability metrics and, most of all, in the funding formulas.

As the publication date for the long-awaited SEND review approaches, it becomes ever clearer that this is an area needing closer attention. So, how big an issue is it, what solutions might there be to tackle it, and what does this tell us about the state of inclusion in England?

A lopsided situation 

Between 2015 and 2021, the number of students with SEND in England rose from 991,981 to 1,083,083, while the number with an EHCP rose from 236,806 to 325,618, according to the most recent government data.

On the one hand, this is to be applauded; it means we are getting better at identifying students who need extra help.

But what seems to be happening is that, as numbers go up, schools like that above are working with the majority of students with SEND.

It is a situation that Lilian Taylor-Bell, headteacher of Leyland St James’ CE (Aided) Primary School, in Lancashire, says she recognises all too well. 

“We are feeling this greatly at the moment,” she says. “We welcome in a large portion of children with complex needs and many parents are drawn to send their children to us because of our reputation and skill.”

This means that, even though St James’ is a small one-form-entry school, 10 per cent of its pupils have profound or moderate learning difficulties and there are already five more pupils for next year’s intake in this category, too.

Like Di’Iasio, Taylor-Bell says she is proud of the school’s reputation that means parents - and the local authority - seek them out to work with pupils with SEND. But she says the fact that this is happening suggests a failure in the system.

Magnet, SEND


“There should be nothing unique or special about us,” she says. “We should be the norm.”

Talk to parents and teachers, however, and you quickly come to understand that this is not the case. The reasons for this are complicated: accountability metrics, funding pressures, staff knowledge and training, and the physical limitations of buildings all feed into the conditions that lead some schools to be more attractive to parents than others.

However, there are parents and teachers who believe that some schools decide to tackle these issues head on, while others do not. 

For example, Gemma Corby, a teacher and former Sendco who has worked in both London and Liverpool, says she thinks there is no question that certain schools do their best to make parents of students with SEND feel that the setting is not for them.

“When I worked as a SEND teacher and key worker at a secondary school in London, parents would say they wanted their child to come to us as other local schools had been unpleasant, unfriendly or generally unaccommodating towards them,” she says. 

Meanwhile, a senior leader at a magnet school (who wishes to remain anonymous) says the school up the road, with the same catchment, has 75 per cent fewer children with SEND on their roll, and that they actively send pupils with SEND down to their school. 

How typical is this? To get a true sense of the scale of the problem, a thorough data analysis would need to be done - something you would hope the SEND review would address (we shall soon see). But anecdotally, SEND parent forums, the Sendco community and many who work with children with SEND are certain that it is an issue that needs to be tackled urgently.

Rob Webster, director of education research, innovation and consultancy in the school of education and sociology at the University of Portsmouth, has done several major research projects on students with SEND and those with EHCPs, and says there is a lopsided nature to SEND provision in mainstream schools. 

“You do get these magnet schools that have a reputation for being really good and it almost lets schools around them off the hook,” he says. “I was visiting a school once and the headteacher said they had no pupils with SEND on their roll. If that were true, the question to ask would be: what about the two schools nearby? I bet they would have had more than the average number [of pupils with SEND] as a result.”

Alison Willett, education director at the National Association for Special Educational Needs (Nasen), agrees that because some schools are “naturally more inclusive” towards students with SEND, it can make it “easier” for other schools to have a lower proportion.

“I don’t know in terms of the scale of it but where it happens, it has to be addressed as schools need to serve all their communities,” she says. “So ideally, we need everyone’s provision at a certain level and an inclusive ethos to underpin that.”

It’s actually less an ideal and more a legal duty to provide for students with SEND, argues Michael Brotherton, partner in the education team at law firm Stone King. “However many children they have with SEND, schools must provide for them,” he says. 

According to many magnet schools and parents, however, the reality is that there is a tendency for one school in the area to become seen as the outstanding school for SEND provision, with other schools being keen to support that development.

A fault in the system

That’s an uncomfortable idea to put forward as it flies in the face of the inclusive, all-welcoming ethos that education prides itself on. But when talking to leaders at schools with high SEND provision, no blame is cast on the schools that do have a lower provision.

“I’ve never met a headteacher who didn’t want the best for any child they worked with,” says Di’Iasio, while Taylor-Bell adds: “I’ve not met a leader whose ambition in teaching was not to help children.”

However, both they and others interviewed say that, despite everyone in education wanting to help children, the wider education system can in fact work against this and make some leaders wary of having too high a proportion of students with SEND, as Di’Iasio neatly summarises.

“You’re worse off financially for admitting students with SEND, you’re worse off with performance data and you’ve got to go through tough recruitment processes for specialist staff to provide the level of provision that you are statutorily held to account for,” he explains. “You can see why it would motivate some schools to think: ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Furthermore, one headteacher, speaking anonymously, admits that this is very much part of their own rationale for not looking to “recruit more students with SEND”.

“The truth is, attracting lots of students with SEND isn’t in the best interest of my school because we don’t have the economies of scale or specialists required to deliver a curriculum for children with SEND as well as other schools can,” they argue. “Although some SEND can be good for Progress 8, the extra work created doesn’t make it worth it.”

‘You’re worse off financially for admitting students with SEND, you’re worse off with performance data…You can see why some schools think: why am I doing this?’

Webster agrees that the system in its current form “does nothing to incentivise inclusion and, perversely, almost rewards [schools] that are not inclusive” as it enables them to perform better in areas such as Ofsted inspections, exam grades and even attendance - the latter of which, Corby says, can be particularly affected by students with SEND.

“Children with SEND often struggle to attend school, meaning they have gaps in their learning,” she explains. “This also impacts schools’ attendance data and is another thing likely to be criticised by Ofsted.”

However, an Ofsted spokesperson says that it is a “misrepresentation” to suggest that SEND work is not recognised in inspections.

“The education inspection framework places greater attention on how well the curriculum is taught for all pupils, and does not overly focus on attainment in national assessments and examinations,” they say. “Inspectors will seek to understand how schools are helping all children, including those with SEND, to make meaningful progress within the school curriculum.”

From the above comments, though, it appears that this view is not one many leaders recognise - and so, rightly or wrongly, we have a situation in which leaders believe having “too many” pupils with SEND on roll will be bad for any inspection outcomes.

For Heba Al-Jayoosi, assistant head (inclusion) at Mayflower Primary School in London - where 18 per cent of pupils have special educational needs and 5 per cent have EHCPs - this is a situation that cannot be allowed to carry on. 

“It’s a privilege to teach children with SEND but the imbalance is causing difficulties with resourcing and workload and damaging the notion of what inclusion really means,” she says, before asking the crucial question: “Why don’t all schools meet the needs of all children and how can we ensure equity for children across all areas?”

Magnet, SEND


That’s a big question - and one without an easy answer.

However, it is one that many hope might be answered in the long-delayed SEND review that is now back on the agenda under education secretary Nadhim Zahawi’s tenure, after he said in October that he “recognised the urgency” around improving the provision of SEND.

Webster says the SEND review is certainly a “window of opportunity” to focus on the points discussed above, and says a key issue it must address is how to “incentivise and reward schools for being inclusive and offering quality provision”.

So, how could this be done?

One idea he suggests is tying a school’s Ofsted inspection framework rating to its SEND provision, or making it so that schools are unable to achieve an “outstanding” rating without a certain SEND inclusion level and quality of provision.

“If you build that into the inspection framework and use SEND and inclusion as a limiting judgement…that could maybe incentivise and reward schools,” says Webster. 

Of course, it’s worth noting that those against this idea could point out that requiring a certain level of SEND students on a roll to achieve a certain rating could be equally unfair if demographic numbers in any area worked against this.

Dr Penny Barratt, CEO of The Bridge London Trust - a special school for primary and secondary pupils - offers another idea: she says the way attainment outcomes are reported also needs reviewing to recognise that some settings will have higher numbers of pupils with SEND sitting exams.

“It’s entirely appropriate for all schools to have the highest possible expectations for the children with SEND who attend their school, but it also needs to be recognised that some of these pupils will affect the whole year group’s data,” she says. 

One anonymous head says this is an issue they have already tried to tackle by breaking down the data from her school’s results into different formats, such as pupils with SEND, those without, pupils that have been with the school for fewer than 12 months, those that have been there longer than that, and so on. 

The aim is to give prospective parents a broader sense of how the school provides for all pupils, but sadly, she says, many “just look at the league table and think we’re not aspirational - which couldn’t be further from the truth”.

Once again, we are back to the accountability system - which happens a lot in these discussions. So, does the Ofsted framework need to change to give more recognition to the work of schools with pupils with SEND?

Ofsted says that, at present, in paragraphs 224 and 225 of its school inspection handbook there is an explicit reference to the fact that SEND provision is a key component of achieving an “outstanding” review and that attendance and attainment data are not the only metrics used.

“The bar for achieving an ‘outstanding’ grade is rightly set high,” the Ofsted spokesperson says. “A school cannot be awarded an ‘outstanding’ grade unless all the ‘good’ criteria are met securely and consistently, as well as the additional ‘outstanding’ criteria.”

However, this does not take into account the number of pupils with SEND that a school has. Indeed, it could potentially benefit a school with fewer pupils with SEND, as it would be easier for such a school to fulfil this element of inspection criteria than for one with many pupils with SEND.

No doubt many will be watching to see what the SEND review may have to say regarding this area.

Long journeys

Accountability is always a contentious topic, but it is certainly not the only issue that comes up in conversations with magnet schools.

Another big concern is around the fact that, as a magnet school’s reputation grows, staff in that school become ever more skilled at working with pupils with SEND, whereas teachers in other schools become deskilled, further exacerbating the issue.

Schools that have a larger number of pupils with SEND have experience and develop expertise, which makes them even more attractive to parents,” notes Barratt.

This is not in itself a negative, as bringing expertise together in one setting can create a hub of excellence that both improves teaching and offers a positive experience for pupils.

For example, Steve Rippin, assistant headteacher and Sendco at Tapton School in Sheffield, says his setting has a reputation for working with visually impaired students and this attracts parents and their children to the school.

As such, staff are increasingly skilled at working with visually impaired students and adapting their teaching as required. It also means that this cohort of pupils has a community in school.

“I think that is a very positive thing because it means those pupils don’t feel isolated, as they are often in classes together alongside other pupils, too,” Rippin explains. “That integration and inclusion is central to the [2014] SEND code of practice.”

‘It’s a privilege to teach children with SEND but the imbalance is damaging the notion of what inclusion really means’

However, this, in turn, creates another problem: children often have to travel a long way to access this provision, as Rippin acknowledges.

“[It can mean] they have a massive journey to make in the morning, which adds a considerable amount of time to their day and one could argue that, for students with SEND, it is not a great thing to be doing.”

Rippin says the fact that this happens perhaps needs to be considered in the SEND review: “If you have a [local] feeder school that says it can meet your SEND needs and provision, there needs to be more justification for why you are going to a school out of your catchment area,” he says.

This appears to be an issue on the government’s radar, with Will Quince, minister for children and families, telling a Commons Education Select Committee hearing in December that it is a situation the government does not want children and their families to face. 

He said: “How do we ensure more children are not spending an hour a day each way in a taxi going to a school? They would much rather be in their local community, attending their local school.”

Quince said this could be done by building more SEND “units within mainstream schools” to help meet the needs of pupils with SEND within mainstream settings, and that this is something the £2.6 billion earmarked for SEND provision unveiled in the Budget earlier this year should help achieve.

“It might be that a child needs one hour a day in the unit within the mainstream setting and then goes back into their classroom, or it might be that they need to spend the whole day there,” he added.

Al-Jayoosi says it would make sense to do this, not just with new schools but also to give more resources to those already doing this sort of work.

She said: “If I have a good school doing good things and serving a need in the community, I’d love it if someone came with an offer to maybe fund a new building to work with children with SEND so that practice could be expanded.”  

Certainly, this would be a positive development and could well help tackle one of the big causes of the magnet school issue. However, building new provision for pupils with SEND into the system is one thing, but you then need enough trained staff to support them - which, as noted above, is not always easy as many teachers are not confident in this area.

The need for skills

This is hardly a new issue. Webster notes that as long ago as 1978, a special educational needs report by Baroness Mary Warnock said more training was needed to help teachers become better at working with students with SEND. At the time, she noted that if that work started then it would take 40 years before the entire workforce was skilled up in this area.

This, however, never came to pass: “We passed the 40-year milestone some years ago,” says Webster.

Yet, despite the fact that such calls have gone unheeded before, Webster repeats them as he says “the persistent lack of pre-service training for teachers in England” is an issue that must be addressed to ensure more schools have staff who are confident to work with increasing numbers of pupils with SEND.

“Annual surveys of new teachers consistently show they rank their confidence in teaching pupils with SEND and as one of their least secure areas,” he adds.

Magnet, SEND


An anonymous headteacher admits the lack of skilled staff in their setting is something that makes the idea of welcoming more pupils with SEND unrealistic.

“When a school like ours has had a tiny percentage of SEND students for a number of years, you can really see the difference in the skill set of the staff,” they say. “Because the teachers are unused to tailoring their lessons to a diverse range of needs, when they do come across those students they can struggle.”

Given this issue, Geraint Jones, executive director and associate pro vice-chancellor of the National School of Education and Teaching at Coventry University, says it is clear that more should be done at the start of a teacher’s career to train them for working with children with SEND.

“The short training of a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) - at 37 weeks - is nowhere near the amount of time to enable teachers to learn specifically about how different groups of children best learn and what is going on in their brains,” he says.

He elaborates by saying that if more time was devoted to this area it would have the effect not only of helping teachers to become more confident in working with pupils with SEND but of helping them to become better teachers overall.

“Gaining this knowledge and implementing it well in the classroom will inevitably develop a teachers’ effectiveness in teaching the full ability range and, by default, pupils designated as having SEND,” he says. “A teacher cannot claim to be a good teacher if they are not effective in adapting their teaching for the full ability range.”

Even if this happened overnight, the idea that we’d have to wait 40 years for such an approach to be embedded across the profession is clearly not realistic. This means more needs to be done for current teachers. 

Willett from Nasen says she hopes the Department for Education will look to “raise the bar” around teaching for SEND in its review and provide funding for schools to develop this. She says: “[We] have to invest more in training teachers with good, effective CPD and make it sustainable. It can’t be one-off, infrequent training sessions, which is what can happen with SEND.”

An area of attention

It does appear that this is something the government will include in the SEND review, with Quince acknowledging at the committee hearing that it was an important area to address.

“We are looking at how we can upskill all teachers - not to be Sendcos, but to have more skilled teachers, whether it is in initial teacher training or as part of ongoing professional development,” he said. “The better you equip your workforce to identify somebody’s needs early on - dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism - the earlier you can put in interventions to help, and that has to start in early years settings, not just in schools.”

What this looks like remains to be seen until the review is published, but it is a positive development for Jones, who said it was “good to see the government putting this on the agenda” and that the impact would be far reaching if it delivered on this.

“It’s in children’s interests that teachers are upskilled to support the entire ability range in their particular setting, to recognise individual students’ needs and to know when specialist intervention is required,” he added.

This would certainly go a long way to alleviate the magnet school issue - although even then it could be many years before large-scale upskilling efforts have a direct classroom impact.

Outreach efforts 

Of course, there are also many schools out there already skilled in working with children with SEND: those in special schools. And what’s more, many do outreach work to help improve the quality of mainstream teaching. So, perhaps this is something the mainstream sector could get better at tapping into for help?

In fact, many do this already, and some see a positive outcome as a result - such as Sarah Wild, headteacher of Limpsfield Grange School, the UK’s only school solely for autistic girls, who says that its outreach work often takes it to mainstream settings.

We run an outreach team who work across half of the mainstream schools in Surrey - and they are very positive about how far mainstream schools go to include and celebrate autistic students,” she says. “I am genuinely impressed with mainstream secondaries’ commitment to inclusive practice - I think they are really trying their best.”

However, others are less sanguine about the commitment all mainstream schools show, such as Gary Smith, executive headteacher of Market Field School, a day special school for pupils aged 5-16 who experience moderate learning difficulties.

“I’ve been a headteacher for 25 years and outreach with mainstream schools is probably the biggest thing we have tried to work on - but it is entirely dependent on the school we work with having the desire to receive the information we can give them,” he explains. “Sometimes you work with a school and they really engage and get better as a result, but others almost pay lip service to it and say ‘if you’re so good at it, you should have them’, and outreach then becomes more of a transfer from them to us.”

He says this situation has got so bad that over the past five years he has seen his cohort size increase by 50 per cent: ”We had 200 children on roll in 2015 and now have 300 - it’s ridiculous.”

That’s not to say all their outreach work is unappreciated. Smith says around two out of every three schools they work with are receptive and want to get better at working with pupils with SEND.

However, he says that if all schools are not “turning up to the game” then it is everyone else who suffers: ”I know mainstream schools who say, ‘we don’t do special needs, you need to talk to the school down the road’.”

That said, Smith acknowledges that a lot of this is due - as we have heard - to the accountability system that means it is not surprising some schools may act like this.

The Ofsted system is not fit for purpose for those in the mainstream because it doesn’t give credit for working with children with SEND,” he says. He adds that this must be addressed in the SEND review because if it isn’t, it will be a “waste of time” and “nothing will ever change” to improve this situation.

The postcode lottery problem

The other big topic that dominates any conversation like this in education is money, or the lack of it - and, perhaps even more tellingly, the oft-cited issue of the “postcode lottery” whereby some regions give schools far more for their work with children with SEND than other regions.

Here too, though, Quince offered some comfort by acknowledging that “a postcode lottery is one of the big issues that we have to address”.

Di’Iasio says this is a welcome admission because it is an issue that particularly affects magnet schools with high numbers of students with SEND.

“You certainly see the haves and the have-nots in the system,” he says. ”In some regions, you see a high level of support in terms of the specialists they can access and the money that these pupils bring into a school, whereas just across the border it can be much lower.”

Di’Iasio is well placed to comment on this issue as his school is located almost on a crossroads of four local authority boundaries - Derbyshire, Sheffield, Nottinghamshire and Rotherham - which means he is keenly aware of the problems it can cause.

“We might have a pupil who brings in enough funding for six hours of extra support and another for just three, but of course we can’t divide up the support like that, so we put it together so everyone receives an equal share,” he explains.

This, though, is not enough: “The hard truth is the money we receive from EHCPs is nowhere near enough to cover the support for these students…so you get a situation where that cohort of students can swamp your finances,” he continues.

‘The hard truth is the money we receive from EHCPs is nowhere near enough to cover the support for these students’

This loops us back to the beginning and why heads such as Di’Iasio and Taylor-Bell in Lancashire worry that their ever-growing cohort sizes caused by their attraction to parents of pupils with SEND could become problematic to the smooth running of the school - to everyone’s detriment. 

However, Di’Iasio says he hopes Quince’s comments lead to real change so that young people can “receive the level of support that they need, from both education and, most significantly, health specialists” - without that being dependent on where they live.

All eyes on the review 

Overall, it is clear that there is a lot the government could address in the SEND review that would help alleviate the magnet school issue: more funding, more training, amending accountability frameworks, more defined requirements for schools to work with pupils with SEND - it would all help.

The DfE says it is ready to make changes. ”Our ongoing cross-government SEND review is looking to ensure more consistency across the system, including in mainstream schools, to support these pupils as efficiently and effectively as possible,” a spokesperson says.

“We are also increasing revenue funding for children with more complex needs by £1 billion, to over £9 billion in 2022-23, building on increases over the past two years. We will also allocate £2.6 billion of capital funding over the coming years to help deliver new places for children with SEND, supporting their learning in both mainstream and special schools.”

What is striking about this whole subject is that improvements in any or all of these areas would of course benefit all schools and, most importantly, ensure that pupils with SEND have access to the best education possible - wherever they are in the country. This should be a compelling motivation for those drafting up the long-awaited SEND review to make good and expand upon the promises government has already made.


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