Free schools and special education: responding to need

This week, Ofsted released SEND: old issues, new issues, next steps – an analysis which mapped the experiences of children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) over the course of the pandemic. The findings outlined what the sector was already aware of: en masse children have not only missed vital education during COVID-19, but have failed to receive language and physical support which is critical to their needs.

A system lacking guidance and co-ordination from top to bottom has led to the exacerbation of inequalities for SEND children. Moreover, discrepancies exist across local authorities. It is essential that the upcoming SEND review identifies and addresses why policy reforms have failed to embed universally. The disparity in EHCP process’, as well as the absence of a joined-up commissioning process between education and health, clearly fails too many children.  

For rounded support to be provided for children with SEND, deep-seated issues within the system need addressing; however, existing policy also needs to be expanded on. The free schools programme enables parents, who know their child’s needs best, to establish their own school to provide holistic and appropriate support. Lighthouse Leeds is a fantastic example of special free school established by a community group of parents whose children had autism. Other special free schools, like The Bridge Integrated Learning Space, work collaboratively with parents and carers to ensure that children receive  quality support, at school and at home. Parents across all 343 local authorities deserve the opportunity to choose a free school tailored to the needs of their child.  Schools like these are pioneering the way, but their transformative impact has yet to be felt because only pockets of the country benefit from the 61 special free schools currently open.

A child’s needs and disabilities are not fixed. The requirements of children can improve over time, especially with good education and support service delivery. Quality provision is therefore not an issue solely for specialist settings. Needless to say, mainstream free schools have responded to provide equity for children with SEND. The Kingston Academy and Tooting Primary Academy are just two schools which facilitate an inclusive learning environment for children, encouraging mobility for students between provision types. Schools like these have the additional benefit of enabling transfer of knowledge and best practice between staff, facilitating: more inclusive practices, CPD opportunities and innovative approaches to teaching.

Undoubtedly, a wide variety of measures need to be taken to ensure that every child with SEND has an opportunity to succeed in life; the experiences of children throughout the pandemic has amplified the need for urgent action. Although there is no quick fix these free schools are setting the standard, providing holistic learning and care. Investment in a new wave of special free schools and mainstream schools (which offer SEND provision) would be timely, delivering places for pupils in the areas which need high-quality education and support the most.

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