teacher 2The number of children who are classed as having special educational needs (SEN) has dropped sharply in the past year since the government introduced widespread change to the SEN system, according to research.

Research by Helen Curran, senior lecturer in special educational needs at Bath Spa University, found that almost two thirds of staff responsible for SEN provision in schools said the number of pupils they categorised as eligible for extra support had fallen following major reforms introduced by the government last year.

Curran said that pressures on schools’ resources may also be part of the reason for the reduction, which echoes national statistics showing a pronounced drop in SEN numbers last academic year.

Part of Curran’s research involved surveying 74 Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs): working in schools who are responsible for overseeing special needs provision. The survey was carried out in March this year, six months after the introduction of the reforms. 

It found that 63% of respondents said that the number of children on their school’s SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) register had declined as a result of the reforms. 

SENCOs gave a variety of reasons as to why this was happening. Some said they were re-considering whether children previously classed as having SEN were genuinely in that category, or, alternatively, were just not making good progress with their learning or suffering from a lack of effective teaching. 

However, others suggested that the government’s changes meant that children who before had rightly been categorised as School Action or School Action Plus were simply no longer eligible for special needs support. 

Others suggested that the changes were a way for schools and local authorities to reduce the number of pupils being supported, given budget and time pressures.

“What really struck me is that when you ask SENCOs, many of them say that the 2014 reforms themselves that have led to these reductions,” said Curran. “SENCOs have stated that they have 're-evaluated' children in light of the reforms. Some children previously on school registers have not made it onto schools’ new ones. 

“This does beg the question: if the SEN numbers are reduced, what has happened to the group who were previously identified as SEN, but are no longer now? Were they incorrectly identified in the past, or are pressures on school resources – including SEN support costs, time and staffing issues - playing a part?

“It’s also interesting to think of this from the parent’s perspective: before September 2014, your child was said to have SEN; post-September, they do not. How has this been managed in schools?”

However, the Department for Education contends that the drop in numbers is due to pupils being wrongly classed as having SEN in the past.

Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism, said there is a need to focus on support rather than numbers: “The SEN reforms are about supporting young people with autism and other SEN being able to thrive and achieve at school – not about an arbitrary change in the way that we classify SEN. If pressure on budgets is driving schools to reduce the number of children they identify as having SEN that is deeply worrying.

“We know that at least 1 in 100 children have autism and that many are currently not getting the support they need to succeed at school. Our Ruled Out report found that over half of parents of children with autism say they have kept their child out of school for fear that the school is unable to provide appropriate support. This points to an under – rather than over – identification of needs.

“Identification of SEN should be based on an assessment of a child’s needs and nothing else. We mustn’t let the debate about numbers distract us from delivering the best possible additional educational support to the children that need it.”