Children with special educational needs and disabilities face long delays and bureaucratic hurdles before getting extra support from local authorities in England, with those from better-off families able to pay for private services, according to a report by Ofsted.
The watchdog found headteachers complaining that some pupils in mainstream schools waited up to five years for their education, health and care (EHC) plans – making them eligible for additional support – to be approved by councils.
Its report comes as official figures show rising numbers of children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send).
In total, 15% of children are classed as having Send, increasing for the third year in a row to 1.37 million pupils at schools in England.
The total number of EHC plans reached 430,700 in January, a 10% rise compared with 2020 and the 10th successive year of increases in special needs plans or statements. Just over 30% were for children with autism as their primary need.
“Many of the schools and families participating in the research had experienced long wait times and high levels of bureaucracy in the education, health and care plan process,” Ofsted said.
“In some instances, families were commissioning or paying for additional services themselves. This suggests that the playing field is not level for pupils from poorer backgrounds.”
Campaigners argue the report’s findings show the system was not working for Send children.
Ian Noon, head of policy at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said: “This important report is yet more compelling evidence to support what parents of deaf children have been saying for years. The Send system isn’t fit for purpose and doesn’t deliver for everyone who relies on it.
“Thousands of deaf children need specialist support, like expert teachers of the deaf, to thrive in school. However, there are clearly serious gaps between the specialist support they need and what’s being provided.”
Teresa Heritage, vice-chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said the continued rise in numbers applying for EHC plans was “a pressing issue” for councils.
“The government needs to urgently complete its ongoing review of the Send system. It needs to set out reforms that increase mainstream inclusion, provide councils with long-term certainty of funding to meet the needs of all children with Send, and give councils the power to hold education partners to account if their provision for identifying and supporting children with Send is not adequate,” Heritage said.
The annual report of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator for England, also published on Thursday, said councils were facing a large increase in the number of children with special educational needs.
Shan Scott, the chief adjudicator, said she was “surprised and concerned” to learn that some schools had resisted admitting children with Send, including cases where local authorities had to force schools to meet their legal obligations.
The new report follows the release of Ofsted data earlier this month showing that more than half of the 116 areas it inspected since 2016 showed “significant weaknesses” in meeting their legal duties to children and young people with Send, requiring a “written statement of action” to be agreed by the local council, health and education leaders and sent to the head of Ofsted.
Recent data shows that special needs are more prevalent in boys than girls, with nearly one in 20 boys having an EHC plan compared with nearly one in 50 girls.
Pupils with Send were also twice as likely to be eligible for free school meals, with 31% receiving FSM compared with 15% of those without special educational needs.