Two blogposts from the Headteachers’ Roundtable concerning funding and pupils with statements of special educational needs (SEN) or education, health and care plans (EHCP)[1] caught our eye recently.

The first, by Jarlath O’Brien, highlighted the projected 15% increase in the number of pupils requiring a place in a special school over the next ten years according to Department for Education projections. Not unreasonably, he wonders where these additional 14,000 pupils will go. The DfE projections clearly state that they will go to special schools. But is there capacity?

School capacity data is missing for many special schools in EduBase, the DfE’s database of schools, but there appears to be a small amount of spare capacity in some. But not much.

Latest data shows shows that the average roll of a special school was 108 pupils in 2015/16.

An additional 14,000 pupils suggests capacity equivalent to an additional 129 special schools will be required by 2025.

As the chart below shows, and amalgamations notwithstanding, there has been a net increase of only 12 special schools since 2013.

There are currently 23 special free schools in the pipeline, which will help meet the need for places, but which alone won’t provide all of the places required.

Number of special schools 2003-2016

The second blogpost we found interesting was by Vic Goddard. He wonders whether funding for pupils with SEN statements or EHCPs is equitably distributed among state-funded secondary schools. Is there sufficient funding for secondary schools which have invested in SEND provision and so have large numbers of pupils with SEN statements or EHCPs on roll?

The chart below (also based on the data release referenced above) shows that the percentage of pupils with a SEN statement or EHCP who attend state-funded mainstream secondary schools has been slowly but steadily decreasing over the last few years.

Meanwhile the share of such pupils taught in state special schools has been increasing, while the percentage taught in primary schools has remained broadly static. Although not specifically identified on the chart, the percentage of pupils with a statement or EHCP attending independent schools has increased from 3.3% to 5.7% between 2007 and 2016.

Type of school attended by pupils with statements/EHC plans, 2007-2016

A population bulge has been working its way through the primary sector during this period so the share of all pupils taught in secondary schools decreased from 41% in 2007 to 37% in 2016, but that it is not enough to explain all of the drop in the share of pupils with SEN statements/EHCPs in secondary schools shown in the chart above.

So why is the rate falling? Are the needs of pupils with SEN statements/EHCPs becoming more complex and so they require special school placements? Are there secondary schools with intakes that don’t reflect the level of need in their local area? We don’t have the expertise to address the first question but we can try to look at the second.

For each secondary school we compare the number of pupils with a SEN statement/EHCP on roll in January 2016 with the number of such pupils living nearby. For example, if a school has 900 pupils on roll in Years 7 to 11, we count how many of the nearest 900 pupils who attend state-funded schools have a SEN statement or EHCP. We don’t include pupils who appear to be boarders at special schools.

Number of secondary age pupils with statements of SEN or EHC plans, state-funded secondary schools, January 2016

Generally, there are more pupils with SEN statements/EHCPs living close to secondary schools than on roll at secondary schools as we have included secondary-age pupils on roll at state-funded special schools in our analysis.

Nonetheless it is clear that, for a number of state-funded secondary schools, the number of EHCP pupils on roll does not reflect the local area. Much of these differences may well be driven by variation between areas in the way special needs provision is organised. Some of the schools with large numbers of EHCP pupils have specialist units or other resourced provision. The low numbers of EHCP pupils on roll at some school may be explained by more attractive (or suitable) options available to local EHCP pupils and their families. For example over 4,000 EHCP pupils live near a grammar school but only just over 300 are on roll.

So it seems clear that additional special school capacity is required in addition to the free schools already in the pipeline. But we might also ask whether it would be appropriate for the secondary sector to increase its share of EHCP pupils and, if so, what would be needed for it to do so.

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