Study suggests many special needs pupils won’t return to school this month

A new study suggests up to 20,000 special needs pupils may not return to school this month.

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Thousands of special needs pupils in England may not return to school this month, according to a new study.

The study, by ASK Research, is based on 40 in-depth interviews and a representative survey of 201 special school and college leaders in England; a further 40 in-depth interviews and a survey of 510 parents whose children attend special
schools and colleges.

Special school and college leaders said they did not expect full attendance in September, with 84% thinking that some families would not send their children back to school in the new academic year. Leaders estimated that an average of 14% of pupils – over 20,000 pupils – may not return.

Leaders identified several key concerns that they felt could result in parents deciding to keep their child at home. These included concerns about safety, medical vulnerability and pupils’ inability to adhere to safe practice and social

Ninety-eight per cent of leaders stated that they have pupils who will find it hard to adhere to safe practice. Many pupils attending special schools also require personal and one-to-one care, meaning they must be in frequent close contact with staff.

Schools were considering a number of changes to comply with government guidance, including reduced and altered contact hours, fewer activities, less curriculum input, different routines, such as being in bubbles with set groups of pupils and staff, and lower levels or different methods of therapeutic input.

Some of the barriers to reopening safely include mixed messaging from government, media and professional bodies, insufficient staff capacity as a result of special schools and colleges requiring additional staff to ensure they can offer safe provision and concerns about what happens if staff members have to self isolate, limited space because of the need to allow extra distance between pupils and staff, limited funding, pupils being likely to need extra emotional and behavioural support as a result of lockdown and the need to work with partners in areas such as health, care and transport who may interpret government guidance differently.

The study raises a number of urgent questions, from how decisions and actions taken by special schools and colleges can be made consistent across the sector and what education and support should be provided to pupils who do not
return to school, who should provide this and how it will be funded.

It recommends that central government and local authorities work beyond education, with all relevant partners, to provide guidance on safe in-school delivery for pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans, guidance on special education delivery expectations, including how pupils who do not return are supported, clear and consistent communication for staff and families about the risks to pupils and staff in special education and how these are being addressed and a reassessment of resourcing to reflect the additional requirements of special schools and colleges as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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