How education policy fails children

The system for pupils with additional needs was well intended but in practice is expensive, complex and sees children as a problem rather than needing help, says Anne Longfield. Below is an edited extract

There is so much evidence about children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), autism, learning disabilities and additional needs struggling in the classroom and too many falling out of school as a result. Additional needs go unidentified or misdiagnosed and are labelled as “misbehaviour”, which leads to suspension or permanent exclusion.

Young Lives, Big Ambitions by Anne Longfield CBE

Young Lives, Big Ambitions

Anne Longfield CBE

Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2024, £14.99

The policy for children with SEND in school was set by the Children and Families Act 2014, which is one of those pieces of legislation with very good intentions but lacking the follow through to make these aims a reality. The act requires education, health and social care agencies to work together more closely than they have in the past.

However, its focus it has put on education, health and care plans (EHCPs) as the main way of helping children has driven support towards those who have a higher level of needs. This has meant that children with lower levels of SEND often receive little support, leaving problems to develop and escalate.

It has also driven a high-cost system, access to which is often contested through litigation and appeals. I have met many parents who tell me they didn’t apply for a plan because the whole process was so onerous they couldn’t face it.

What is often so striking about the conversations I have with parents whose children with SEND are not receiving support is the lack of apparent purpose and clarity in the response to the way their young children were behaving in school.

Rather than behaviour being seen as a warning sign that triggered specialist support in school, they had been dealt with through an endless carousel of referrals and assessments, sometimes taking many months and even years, disrupting their education along the way. We focus on the child as a problem – we don’t look at how we can change the system.

Among the group of mums who I met in north London, whose children had all been excluded repeatedly, six of the seven children who had experienced either a fixed-term or permanent exclusion had been diagnosed with SEND.

Six of the seven children who had experienced a fixed or permanent school exclusion had been diagnosed with special educational needs

Some of the children had been sent to AP – alternative provision: places for pupils who can’t go to a mainstream setting – and one child to a pupil referral unit, where they were the youngest child. They sat by themselves in an empty room as all the other children were so much older. What a depressing thought: a five-year-old, who should be excited to go into school, see friends and have fun learning, sitting without any children of his own age.

Unsurprisingly, the parents I met were horrified and did not think that this kind of environment was going to help their child or keep them safe, even more so when they visited and found there were police and high security on site.

So many families have told me that they give up on applying for help – or so often get their applications rejected – that you have to wonder if the middle classes are the only ones who can get through the EHCP hoops without help.

There are plenty of signs that many children are not getting the help they need because they don’t have a plan to guarantee help. With such a complex process, it is easy to see why some parents just give up.

At one AP school I visited in east London, an independent assessor judged that 85% of children attending should be eligible for an EHCP. Unfortunately, just 15% had a plan. The others were left to struggle without help and in some cases become more vulnerable to violence and crime.

If the EHCP approach is going to be more than a middle-class offer, it needs to become more accessible and support needs to be available for children much earlier to prevent crisis.