Something strange is happening to our children and young people. Far fewer, apparently, have special educational needs and disability (SEND). Government figures show that in the course of the last year there have been 200,000 fewer students classified with SEND. This is a dramatic decline – so the question must be asked: where have they all gone?
The Department for Education (DfE) suggests the fall in numbers is down to more accurate classification of those with SEND. An alternative explanation might be found in the redefining of one SEND category, which has replaced "Behaviour, Emotional and Social Difficulties" with "Social, Emotional and Mental Health".
Look carefully at the new definition. Note that "behaviour" has been removed from the category. While this could be considered a progressive move on the part of the government, because behaviour is more likely to be a symptom of SEND, it does beg the question: what is happening to children with behavioural difficulties which affect their ability to access the curriculum?
And it is here that the story gets rather murky and portrays our education system in an unflattering light. The DfE’s own figures on school exclusion show that children with SEND account for 70 per cent of exclusions and that exclusions by academies are more likely to be overturned by an independent review panel (two-thirds of exclusions by academies were not upheld – a figure six percentage points higher than in local authority schools).
It is also the case, campaigners claim, that academies are more likely to use illegal exclusions – such as sending children home for fixed periods or giving them a heavily reduced timetable.
Warnings that academies are failing to take their share of children with SEND, and particularly those children whose SEND results in challenging behaviour, are not new. The Special Educational Consortium (SEC 2012) and other campaigning groups gave evidence to the 2013 Academies Commission urging the government to tighten regulations on academies admissions. They reported a growth in reports from parents who are either unable to gain access to academies for their children or who are concerned about the provision in these schools. And they expressed grave concern about an apparent trend towards not appointing coordinators for special educational needs (SENCOs).
More recently, I heard of another ruse to get around the admissions code – the creation, by some multi-academy trusts (MATS), of special schools populated by pupils with SEND and behavioural difficulties. This ruse enables the other academies in the MAT to safeguard their league table position by skewing their intake towards academically and socially advantaged pupils, while meeting the legal requirements of the admissions code.
The ill-effects of these dubious practices on pupils and parents are getting ever harder to deny. Parents complain of being passed from pillar to post as they try to get an identification of their child’s SEND. With the demise of local authorities’ SEND support services, they also complain of inadequate guidance and help to enable their child to find the right provision for their needs.
Parents report being told by the school they have applied to that it cannot provide a "suitable education" for their child; that they would be much better off in another school which has more "specialist provision". What this means is that SEND pupils, and those with behaviour difficulties, are more likely to be segregated in units, or schools, where they are less likely to access a broad and balanced curriculum, but more likely to be excluded (either formally or informally).
Commenting on these issues, Deuan German, strategic director of the Communities Empowerment Network, argues: "Academies definitely have got to perform. They’ve got to be shown to be performing, and that’s how they maintain their academy status and get to open other branches in their chain. Unfortunately, in order to do that, they are choosing to exclude some of the more vulnerable pupils – pupils with SEN or behavioural problems’.
Unequal and unfair admissions practices, and a lack of effective means to challenge these, are unacceptable in a publicly funded education system. Schools are places where children and young people learn about life; it is in school that they learn about difference – of culture, ethnicity and class, and of those who have needs and abilities which are different from their own.
The greater the degree of segregation, the fewer opportunities there are to learn these important life lessons, and all pupils, both those with SEND, and those without, lose out.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of ATL