Almost a fifth of pupils with special education needs are absent from school, according to government figures, as parents find their children shut out by rigid coronavirus rules.
According to data published last week, 81% of children in England with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) at state-funded schools were in attendance on 24 September, compared with 88% of all children.
Parents and campaigners have told the Observer that children with special education needs and disabilities (Send) are missing out on school due to problems with infection control, timetables and transport. “We’re hearing from families of disabled children who have not been permitted to return or have been put on part-time timetables,” said Gillian Doherty of Send Action. “Other children have had the provision they rely on to access education reduced or removed. The gap between rhetoric and reality needs to be acknowledged so it can be addressed.”
Children with tracheostomies or who require “oral suctioning” to clear their airways are particularly affected. Public Health England rules state that schools must ensure they are suctioned in separate ventilated and sanitised rooms by staff wearing full protective gear – rules that many schools are unable to meet, leaving children unable to attend.
Janine Keppy’s 14-year-old son, Xander, who is severely autistic and has a tracheostomy, is one of 16 children who have been unable to return to their special school in the West Midlands due to these rules, as it does not have 16 spare rooms to use for suctioning.
“He’s not getting any sort of educational support apart from the two packs of work they’ve sent home for me to do with him,” she told the Observer. “It’s had a considerable effect on his anxiety and his obsessive compulsive behaviours that I know he does because he’s uncertain of what’s happening and he wants to control the situation.” Having strenuously lobbied the school and her council, she said the situation had taken its toll. “I’ve been a blubbering wreck for about three weeks – I’ve cried more now than I’ve ever done in my lifetime. For three and a half weeks I’ve had no contact from school, up until Sunday [last week]. I’ve just felt like he’s been excluded and we’ve been pushed out, we don’t exist any more, they haven’t wanted to know – there’s been no checking to see if he’s all right, if we’re all right.”
The absence rate for children with EHCPs and their forerunners, SEN [Special Educational Needs] statements in 2018-19 was 8.7% – less than half the current absence rate of 19%, although there are differences in how the two figures are calculated.
The figures only take into account pupils who are enrolled at school, and not the many Send children who have no school to go to in the already crisis-hit special needs system.
Fran Morgan, founder of the Send social enterprise Square Peg, told the Observer that Covid was making a bad situation worse.
“Anecdotally, we’ve heard of things like SEN hubs which can’t be opened because they’re mixed-year groups. And the guidance says the bubble has to be a year group, so we can’t have the SEN hub,” she said.
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said: “The problems of access to mainstream schooling for children with Send were already showing up long before lockdown and the start of schools reopening in September. None of the disruption of this year has helped that. In fact, for too many it’s got harder accessing an education they have a United Nations-recognised human right to.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we have worked with schools and councils to help support children with Send, including asking schools to stay open to support those with EHCPs. At the same time, we are increasing high needs funding for local authorities by £780m this year and a further £730m next year, which means high needs budgets will have grown by 24% in just two years.
“We have provided guidance on the measures special schools and other special education settings should put in place to keep children and staff as safe as possible.”