Too many families are having to face 'gruelling' tribunals to receive the right education for their children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), after a new study highlighted a postcode lottery of school support.

The study from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that the extent of SEND support was largely dictated by the school that a child attends, rather than their individual circumstances.

It also found that the huge variation could be explained by inconsistent approaches to identifying children. 

Over a million children are currently registered as having special educational needs in England – with as many 4 in 10 of all pupils recorded as having SEND at some point during their time at school.

Shocking findings are yet more evidence of the SEND postcode lottery

These shocking findings are yet more evidence of the postcode lottery facing children and young people with special education needs, including autistic children," Tim Nicholls, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the National Autistic Society said. "Our own research suggests that the coronavirus pandemic has made things even harder.   

“Families end up having to fight - sometimes at tribunal - just to get their son or daughter into the right school or for a little additional support. This is gruelling, especially on top of the often unbearable pressures families already face. Schools and councils must work together to make sure they're ableto meet all autistic children’s needs."   

The findings show that pupils attending academy schools are less likely to be identified with SEND compared to other similar pupils, indicating that pupils’ needs may have been overlooked in these settings.

Children living in the most disadvantaged areas of the country are less likely to be formally recognised as having SEND than similar pupils in more affluent areas, highlighting how there is a “rationing of support” in many areas of high need.

Pandemic will likely have aggravated existing problems seen in SEND identification

The report also shows that many vulnerable pupils are more likely to be subject to SEND “under-identification”. Those moving schools and those frequently out of school, along with children who have suffered abuse or neglect, are all shown to have a reduced chance of being identified with SEND compared with otherwise similar children.

"The Government needs to address the longstanding problems in the education system in its upcoming national autism strategy and SEND Review," Tim Nicholls added. "They must make sure that all school staff get the autism training they need and equip every part of the country with the resources they need to support all the autistic children and young people in their area. Without a properly funded system, autistic children will continue to miss out.”  

With the system for supporting SEND highly reliant on regular access to pupils over time, researchers conclude that the pandemic will likely have aggravated existing problems seen in SEND identification, with increasing numbers of more vulnerable children who need support falling under the radar of schools and authorities.

The Association of School and College Leaders said that they were "extremely concerned" by the report’s findings but cautioned against jumping to conclusions in an extremely complex educational landscape.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary, added: “Of particular concern is the conclusion that the type of school may be a factor in identifying SEND, and that children from the most disadvantaged areas are less likely to be identified than similar children in more affluent areas. 

“However, what we do know is that everybody in the school system – in whatever type of school or area – is utterly committed to correctly identifying SEND and providing the support that children require. Schools have not been helped by the fact that government funding for this support has not matched the level of need, and that the SEND funding system is byzantine in its complexity."