Last reviewed 18 October 2023

SEND — a growing problem

The number of pupils requiring SEND support continues to increase year on year. Government figures for English schools show an increase of 5% from 2022 to 2023. More than 1.5 million pupils now have been identified as having special educational needs, and this figure represents an increase of 87,000 from 2022, both for pupils with an educational health care plan (EHC plan) and the number of pupils requiring SEN support.

It is useful to define the difference between SEN support and an EHC plan.

SEN support in a school is additional to or different from the support generally made to other children of the same age. Pupils concerned will have been identified as having a learning difficulty or disability that requires extra or different help from that normally provided as part of the school’s curriculum. A pupil receiving SEN support will not have an EHC plan.

An EHC plan may be issued by a local authority for a pupil who needs more support than is available through SEN support. This will follow a statutory assessment process to consider the pupil’s special educational needs, together with any relevant health and social care needs. It will set out long-term outcomes and the specific provision that will deliver additional support to meet those needs.

2023 figures show that 389,171 pupils now have EHC plans. This is an increase of 9.5% since 2022 and represents 4.3% of the national school roll. A further 1,183,384 pupils require SEN support, but do not have an EHC plan. This number has increased by 4.7% from 2022 and represents 13% of the total school roll.

Since 2016, the number of pupils with SEN support has increased by 19%, although the total school population has only increased by 6% during that time.

So where are these children?

  • In the primary sector 2.5% of pupils have an EHC plan, while 13.5% have SEN support.

  • In the secondary sector 2.4% of pupils have an EHC plan, while 12.4% have SEN support.

  • In state-funded AP schools, 25.5% have an EHC plan and 57.0% have SEN support.

  • In schools in the independent sector, including independent special schools, 4.9% of pupils have an EHC plan, while 15.2% have SEN support.

The most common needs

The most common type of need for those with an EHC plan is autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Almost one in three pupils with an EHC plan is identified with a primary need if ASD. The amounts to 116,000 pupils.

The most common needs among pupils receiving SEN support are generally in the areas of speech, language and communication. This accounts for 278,600 pupils and is followed by social, emotional and mental health needs (229,700 pupils) and those with moderate learning difficulties (189,400 pupils).

Identifying those in need of help

Pupils in need of SEN seem to reach their peak at around the ages of nine to ten, when 15.7% of pupils are in need of support. This will then steadily decline to 12.4% by the age of 15.

Numbers of pupils with EHC plans also increase with age, from 3.3% at the age of five, to peak at 5.3% by the age of 11. This is followed by a slow decline to 4.7% at age 15.

Boys seem to need more support than girls, accounting for 72.4% of pupils with EHC plans, with 62.8% requiring SEN support. DfE data show that pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to be diagnosed with SEN than their less disadvantaged peers.

Eligibility for free school meals is often used as a social indicator. While 23.8% of all pupils have free school meals, this figure rises to 41.4% for pupils with EHC plans and 37.5% for pupils with SEN support.

Similarly, children in lone parent families and looked after children are more likely to have SEN. Almost half of all children in need (CIN) had SEND and 58% were eligible for free school meals.

Looked-after children are of particular concern, since the effects of learning difficulties can be long-term. The office of National Statistics recently reported that of children who had attended primary school in England in the academic year ending 1994, 52% of looked after children had a criminal record by the age of 24, and 92% of them had been identified with SEN.

Where is the most appropriate place?

Most UK children with special educational needs attend mainstream schools, with fewer than 10% attending special schools. Research has shown that with an inclusive form of education, when SEND provision is incorporated into the mainstream school, there can be benefits in both academic achievement and the development of social skills.

However, there a number of potential difficulties.

  • According to a 2019 DfE survey, 22% of mainstream teachers felt that they were not able to meet the needs of SEND pupils.

  • Also in 2019, parent data collected by Ofsted showed that 29% of parents of pupils with SEND would not recommend their child’s secondary school to another parent. This was nearly double the rate for parents of pupils without SEND.

Problems of supporting very young children

A recent report by the London School of Economics has indicated a near-doubling of the proportion of pupils with SEND who are entering Year 1 having missed all or part of Reception. This is particularly the case with parents of summer-born children who exercise the option of starting Reception after Easter, rather than at the beginning of the academic year.

The suggestion is that there is increasing mistrust from parents of schools’ ability to meet their children’s SEND needs.

Quoted in the TES, Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, commented that the charity was hearing reports of a lack of sufficient Reception places for children with SEND in both mainstream and special schools. This results in some children having no place at all, or a reduced timetable, or having to remain in early years provision.

Ms Merrick went on to point out that a smooth and supportive transition from Reception to Year 1 was always vital but was particularly critical for those with SEND.

The Children’s Commissioner seeks a complete reform of SEND

Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England, has called for a radical rehaul of the SEND system. She draws attention to the 1,183,384 children in England who have SEN support, but no EHC plan, and that in the past year the number of children in England with SEN has risen from 16.6% to 17.3%.

Despite the demand, the number of EHC plans issued this year has only risen by 7%.

Dame de Souza expressed her concern that with demand for EHC plans never being higher, there was a need to create a system which is ambitious for every child. Clearly children wanted support to help them to do well, but they often experience a system that asks, “what is wrong with you?”, rather than “how can we help you?”.

She pointed out that children with SEND are no less ambitious than their peers. Consequently, it is essential to get the right support in place for children with SEND and that failing to do so has many knock-on effects, not the least being higher absence rates. These children, she said, are desperate to be in school just like all other children; they just need the right support to get them there.

The SEND system should be set up to help these children achieve their dreams, but this too rarely is the case.