Covid: 8 challenges facing special schools

Pupils’ academic, emotional and physical development has been hampered and Department for Education recovery plans will not work for the sector, report warns
14th July 2021, 12:00am


Covid: 8 challenges facing special schools
Covid: How Pandemic Has Affected Special Schools.

Pupils at special schools and colleges are four months behind in their academic, social and emotional development, and have found remote learning hard to access, according to a new report examining the impact of the Covid crisis.

New research shows how schools and families struggled to provide the normal support to pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) during lockdowns and in times where restrictions were in place. It warns that the situation has left staff and families exhausted.

It also warns that headteachers of special schools believe the government’s Covid education recovery plans to date are unsuitable for the special sector because they do not provide what their pupils need.

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Today’s report from the National Foundation for Education Research and ASK Research is based on a survey of 192 special school and college headteachers and 80 in-depth interviews with headteachers and parents.

Here are its key findings:

1. Pupils ‘four months behind’

The survey found that headteachers thought pupils were around four months behind in their academic development as a result of the Covid pandemic.

Heads also reported that pupils were, on average, a similar amount behind where they would have been in their behaviours for learning. The report says this includes the emotional, social and cognitive skills required to engage in learning.

2. Disadvantaged pupils hit the hardest

Headteachers from special schools and colleges with the highest proportions of pupils facing disadvantage reported greater academic losses.

On average, these pupils were thought to be abour seven months behind where they should have been in their literacy, 6.5 months behind with their numeracy skills and eight months behind in their behaviours for learning.

3. Covid disruption has affected physical development

In schools that cater for pupils with health and physical conditions, headteachers reported that pupils were, on average, more than five months behind in their physical development.

The report gives examples of how, during Covid lockdowns, pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND) might have been unable to access the same support that their school provides, such as access to swimming pools, exercise routines or specialist equipment to support them physically.

4. Some SEND pupils not in school during lockdown

The government said that all pupils with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) would be offered a place during educational lockdowns.

However, the report notes this was not achievable in special schools, as all of their pupils have EHCPs and, also, some families chose not to send their children in during these periods.

About 74 per cent of pupils had spent some time in their special school or college by the end of the latest lockdown.

However, only around 50 per cent were in school full-time and 25 per cent of pupils still did not attend at all.

5. Schools could not operate at full capacity

About three in 10 special providers (29 per cent) reported that demand for places was greater than they could accommodate during the latest lockdown.

Special settings described why operating at full capacity during lockdowns was not possible, as:

  • Not all of their staff were available because of shielding or their own children being off school.
  • Schools did not have space to allow for social distancing, and pupils were unable to adhere to it because of their needs and behaviours.
  • Staff and parents and were not convinced that high levels of mixing were advisable, especially for pupils with underlying conditions and medical vulnerabilities, and when incidence of the virus was high.

6. Difficulties accessing remote learning

The report warned that supporting pupils when they were not in school was difficult and remote learning was very difficult for families of pupils with EHCPs.

Despite many specialist settings trying different methods of supporting learning at home, it said parents interviewed identified that:

   • They do not all have IT access (headteachers reported about a third of families had limited IT access).

   • They had competing demands on their time, including working and caring for and supporting home learning of other children.

  • They were unable to help their children to learn or provide the specialist support children would receive in school.

• Some children and young people cannot engage with a screen because of their SEND.

• Disruptions to normality meant that many children’s needs and behaviours worsened, and families had little support with this. Supporting their wellbeing and happiness had to become more of a priority than learning.

7. Special schools restricted by Covid

Special school and college heads reported still having to restrict what they could offer pupils as they, and wider society, operated under Covid safety restrictions.

Headteachers detailed how they were still unable to provide the full package of support, which they saw as vital to supporting their pupils’ development.

This included on-site activities, such as therapies and social events, being either severely limited or cancelled. More than half of headteachers (52 per cent) reported that they were having to limit their in-school activities.

Off-site activities, such as swimming, travel training and work experience, were also not able to take place in most settings. And seven out of 10 headteachers said they were having to restrict their usual out-of-school activities.

8. Recovery plans ‘not suited to the sector’

Headteachers of special schools and colleges felt that the suggestions made to date from the government on Covid education recovery were “unsuitable for the special school sector because they did not provide what they and their pupils needed”, the report said.

The survey demonstrated that, while 65 per cent of headteachers had accessed, or considered accessing, catch-up funding, many felt they were ineligible or it was inadequate to cover the types and levels of additional costs they would incur, such as specialist mental health support, pool cleaning or residential area sanitation.

And only 8 per cent of heads had applied for, or would consider applying for, National Tutoring Programme funding. Interviews revealed that this was because they believed their pupils would not benefit from academic input from a tutor not known to them and who is not experienced in supporting pupils at special schools and colleges.

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