English schools ‘using coronavirus as excuse’ not to teach special needs pupils

Schools in England are using Covid-19 risk assessments as a “blanket excuse” to prevent pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) from attending classes, MPs have been told.

Campaigners told the cross-party education committee that schools were using “spurious reasons” to avoid having pupils with Send in education settings. Many children isolated at home have had little or no support and their families have been left feeling “utterly abandoned”, MPs heard.

The committee, which is investigating the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on education in England, also heard that children with additional needs had seen their support “fall off a cliff” during the pandemic, and as a result the physical, emotional and mental health of many had deteriorated.

Philippa Stobbs, the policy vice-chair of the Special Educational Consortium, said there were examples of good provision in some areas but elsewhere parents have had no contact with their school or local authority.

“The impact of that is absolutely devastating,” said Stobbs. “The difficulty for a family left to home educate their child with a lack of any provision from a school or local authority is almost unimaginable, and the impact of that in terms of physical and mental wellbeing is going to be deep and, I fear, lasting.”

Pupils with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) were among those offered school places during lockdown, alongside children of key workers and vulnerable students. While some families have chosen to keep children at home, the committee was told others have been unable to access places.

Ali Fiddy, the chief executive of the Independent Provider of Special Education Advice, told MPs: “What we’re certainly seeing is the risk assessment process being used as a blanket excuse for not meeting the needs of children and young people and not having them in education settings – with either no reasons being given, or spurious reasons around, for example, ‘Well, your child isn’t capable of social distancing’, or ‘Your child won’t wash their hands without prompting’.”

The committee was told that children and young people with Send had lost their additional support as a result of the government’s decision to relax the legal duty on local authorities – overstretched as a result of the Covid-19 crisis – to deliver provision outlined in EHCPs.

The committee chairman, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, said the evidence provided by campaigners and lawyers painted an “incredibly depressing” picture of how the pandemic had affected children with Send and their families.

Beyond the immediate crisis, witnesses warned of a rise in disability discrimination as schools fully reopen in September, with some children regarded as too high-risk and no focused catch-up provision for those with Send.

They also raised concerns about a potential jump in exclusions among children with Send who will have been adversely affected by lockdown, particularly if the government enforces a “zero-tolerance” approach to behaviour once schools fully return.

MPs were also told of the toll the crisis had taken on families left to care 24/7 for children with high needs during the lockdown. “A lot of families aren’t only home-schooling, they’re home nursing, administering therapies, some doing 24/7 care generally with very little support,” said Amanda Batten, the chair of the Disabled Children’s Partnership.

A survey by the partnership of 4,000 families found 45% of parents felt their child’s physical health had deteriorated and just over 70% said their child’s emotional health had declined. “Families feel very much forgotten,” said Batten, “and I think the overall picture from the survey was one of exhaustion and stress.”

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