Returning to school when your child has Special Educational Needs

It is not unusual for both parents and children to feel a degree of anxiety at the beginning of the academic year; however September 2020 brings a unique experience for all those who return to school and education.

It will be a challenging time ahead for teachers and schools who have been tasked with using a £650 million premium, spread across primary and secondary schools during 2020/2021 to help children ‘catch up’ for time away from formal education.

Whilst for many this return is much anticipated, understandably some parents and children will be more ill at ease than others. The apprehensions of parents of children with SEN (Special Educational Needs) are at this time, especially understandable.

During the beginning of lockdown those children awarded with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans were among children who could attend school, however, these were not guaranteed places but based on risk assessments carried out by Local Authority and Schools.

To obtain a school place children’s needs would need to be met as ‘safely or more safely … in the educational environment” (than at home). With schools running on skeleton staff, many children were deemed safer at home and therefore required to stay there. Of course many children with SEN and those who receive support within school but do not have an EHC plan were expected to stay at home.

The difficulties parents have faced in motivating children to willingly take part in homeschooling have been well-documented in the shape of internet memes and funny anecdotes on platforms such as Twitter and TikTok. Perhaps some of the parents of SEN children have been leading the vanguard on the 3pm wine swilling memes. Those parents of children with complex needs have had a particular and uniquely difficult time and one made especially poignant by the inevitable isolation that withdrawal of services during lockdown has caused. The organisation Contact concluded from a survey of 4,000 parents of disabled children that as many as 76% of families had all support withdrawn and up to 70% of parents eligible for a school place did not take them, due to concerns regarding their children’s health or lack of correct provision.

As amusing as Covid homeschooling strife has been portrayed, it is apparent that returning may bring about many more worries than just how to keep children safe from the virus. It is difficult to visualise how SEN children, in particular, will be eased into return and how their needs will be met. Whilst certain educational settings will attract more funding per pupil and the government statement on funding addresses the needs of more disadvantaged pupils, it seems inevitable that schools will be challenged with providing robust tutoring to those who need it the most. Whilst the evidence for effective tutoring is good, addressing the individual needs of SEN children within the classroom is essential and takes a dynamic mindset rather than mere funding.

It is important to remember that schools have an obligation to provide clear information regarding the support your child with SEN will receive. On returning to an educational setting it is pertinent to provide parents with the information the government has provided surrounding SEN. The definition of SEN encompasses children who ‘have learning difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn than most children and young people of the same age.’ Many children progress differently but the falling short of educational ‘landmarks’ or perhaps excessive emotional difficulties surrounding attending school may be an indication of needing further support and it is always prudent for parents to communicate worries regarding progress with their child’s school.

Teachers should provide Quality First Teaching, which relies on teaching children at their level of knowledge, rather than age expectations; all communication should be clear, with repetition, brevity and vocabulary should be explicitly taught if needs be. Some children will need techniques for difficulties such as concentration and a class teacher should be able to ask for techniques from the schools’ SENco (Special Educational Needs co-ordinator) when needed. Teachers are required to have high expectations of all children and robust assessment methods to indicate progress. If despite best efforts of both child and teacher there continues to be concerns in areas such as communication, cognition, social, emotional and mental health and sensory and/or physical needs then a ‘graduated approach’ should be put in place. This requires assessment, planning, carrying out and reviewing of support and interventions, the key factor is that this becomes documentation and in communication with parents. Indeed, young people aged 16-25 are expected to play a key part in designing any support or interventions. It is a requirement that educational settings do their very best to support SEN. Children whose needs cannot be met by a graduated response can apply for more detailed support in the form of an Educational Health Care plan. Teachers, SENcos or outside agencies may advise the need to apply for an EHC, which will be assessed by the Local Authority.

Educational Health Care plans are, once in place, a legal documentation and Educational settings are obliged to carry out the care and health recommendations stated. There are two sections of an EHC plan, F includes educational support and G includes health support ultimately Local Authority is charged with safeguarding that plans are adhered to. In government guides, parents are encouraged to seek advice if they have disagreements, each Local Authority will have a process in order to do this. Organisations such as Leeds SENDIASS can provide impartial advice.

The principles behind providing care and support for our SEN children is that it is an expectation. Good practice from schools, teachers, SENcos and Local Authority are essential and not optional. Clear communication between practitioners and parents can provide the corner stone of a relationship which build a child or young person’s future, indeed according to Special educational needs and disabilites a guide for parents: ‘All children have the right to an education that enables them to make progress so they can … become confident individuals and live fulfilling lives’.


The following is an article written from a parent’s point of view, outlining their particular experience of negotiating care and support for their autistic child in the school system:


When the news breaks that a quarter of English Councils are discriminating against autistic children and the reaction from parents is simply “yes we know” you must understand the impact of that simple response.

Three little words highlight years of arguing with providers, years of trying to get services to understand needs, waiting lists that are years long, children without an education that is suitable and some with large education gaps. Parents with SEN children, I can claim with a certain degree of confidence, are the most ignored and more so if our children have developmental issues. Is this true of every provider? No, but percentage wise I will bet a limb.

Sounds bold and dramatic right? Typing this out I it deleted several times, but I’m going to leave it and I have the reason to back it up.

In my own family’s lived experience this is true, and it is true for many other families too. The last three years of primary school were nothing short of traumatic for my child. She had all the legal documents, was fully funded, and we had a good relationship with school. Yes, it can be tiresome to constantly be reminded of how to get the best from her, but progress was being made.

Then an academy took over. Staffing issues were cited as a reason for her not having her legally funded with a documented Education Health Care 1-to-1 Plan; their staffing issues were so extreme that they removed my child from her class and put her in one two years below. She would come home and cry, asking where her friends went, and, as we had not been informed or consulted about the change of class, we had no idea that this was causing her so much distress; only by accident did I find this out.

This went on in her last year and despite me telling them, she began to regress, loosing speech as well as being constantly distressed when she came home. After pointing out again that she should have 1-to-1 we were told about the issues around staffing. She had crashed so badly her high school provision called us saying she may have to move school as they were not sure they could teach her. Being the child that she is, she adapted and remains in a school environment and is now progressing again. Did we complain about the issues this was causing? Yes. Did we get a response? No, we did not.

I’ve had people say (with neurotypical children) that you can’t expect schools that are not specifically for disabled children to cater for everything she needs!!! Consider that when we looked for school places, even those with specialist provisions, the class numbers ranged from 9 – 15, which absolutely does not match the rates of diagnosis. Children wind up in mainstream education and this is how our children have access to occupational therapies, speech therapies, psychologists staying in the school system is important.

Even though Leeds City Council were not directly cited, and interestingly the 41 council names were not revealed and have some unexplainable luxury of not being exposed, the leader Cllr Judith Blake had commented on the article –

“Councils are under huge strain as a result of the rising demand for support – seeing an increase of 10% in education health care plans in the last 12 months alone” – BBC News 04/08/2020

This statement is absolutely true, but what it does not include is a promise to make sure these children receive the education they deserve. It also does not acknowledge that Education Health Care Plans are regularly broken and that things should be done to ensure these children are provided for as it is their legal responsibility. The plans were introduced as a home and school package as it was recognised children needed to be educated based on a full picture not just school hours. The intent was wonderful but the delivery was lacking.

I quote Leeds’ very own Child Friendly Promise “Child Friendly Leeds aims to make Letter a better place for everyone growing up and particularly to address the issues and challenges that can prevent young people realising their potential” You’ll find many a parent think, this isn’t including my child.

Assessments are to be done for children, by law, to deliver social care support that they and their families would need such as respite care and clubs. The unnamed councils were found to have blocked assessments and only allowed them if the child had an additional disability, challenging behaviour or an official diagnosis of autism (note: a diagnosis currently can take 18 months plus). When you look at those stipulations that leave many children without services, and we know too well that if children don’t have access to basic needs they are more likely to have mental health issues, suffer bullying and come out with a poor education. We know this and must apply it to children with all abilities because leaving one out is discriminatory.

We cannot keep putting up with excuses from educators that don’t fulfil potential and we cannot keep accepting that we may be blocked from services designed to progress social interactions or improve family situations. These children may require different ways of learning but to not assess and even start a chance of a positive childhood that can then produce productive happy adults, these children are being set up in a way that they may not be able to not access or maintain employment and/or need lifelong help from mental health services. Yes, they cost more in their younger years but investing at the time when they are growing and more open to learning could save in the future as being autistic does not mean that this can’t happen.


These posts were written by Deborah Davies and Christine Smart

Photo: Shutterstock

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