New research by the BBC has found that half of state-funded schools in England for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are full.
The research compared pupil headcount data to the number of commissioned places at more than 1,000 state-funded schools for children with SEND during the 2021-22 academic year, and found that 52% of these schools had more children in classes than their number of places.
Number of children in SEND schools has risen by nearly a third in the last five years
The strain on SEND schools has in part been created by a rise in demand for places, with the BBC finding that over the past five years, the number of children and young people being educated in specialist schools and colleges in England has increased by nearly a third to 142,028 last year.
For children to attend a SEND school, they must have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). These plans will specifically name a school (usually in a nearby area) that the pupil must attend.
Since 2016, the number of children with EHCPs has risen by 50%, to just over 355,500 last year. While funding for specialist schools is allocated depending on how many pupils attend the school, the BBC says schools that take on extra pupils won’t necessarily receive “the full high-needs funding for each additional child”, and that decision lies with the local authority.
The research is presented in a new BBC documentary, SEND help, which explores the challenges families face in fighting for a place at a SEND school.
One in three children at Maltby Hilltop no longer able to attend classes
The documentary focuses on one school in particular – Maltby Hilltop School in Rotherham – which is so over capacity that one in three pupils are no longer able to attend classes.
The school, which is for pupils aged two to 19 with severe learning difficulties and complex needs, is struggling with a severe lack of space and overcrowding to the extent that some pupils are now being taught in portable cabins with loud floors and thin walls.
The BBC found wheelchairs, walking aids and medical equipment lining the corridors of the school, and some pupils being taught in stationary cupboards with no windows or natural light
Such environments may cause sensory issues for autistic people and others with complex needs, and do not provide a calm and relaxed environment for children to learn in.
Head teacher Rob Mulvey said the school is doing everything it can to make space for more pupils as there are “some desperate families out there who really need a place”, but they are at full capacity.
No more “sticking plasters”
While the Department for Education said it was providing £2.6bn in capital funding up to 2025 to help deliver new places at SEND schools, with demand set to rise even further, Mr Mulvey says specialist schools need more investment from the government and local authorities.
He told the BBC: “We don’t need sticking plasters. We need a long-term solution to increasing the places and availability for children with additional needs”