The case for free schools to establish a resourced provision/SEND unit

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a number of major challenges parents, carers and schools face - one being supporting children with special needs. In September 2020, a BBC Panorama episode, investigated the system for supporting young people with special educational needs. On our blog this week we look at the need for more mainstream free schools to establish a resourced provision. 

As a staff member at New Schools Network (NSN) with a career history in the world of special educational needs, I’m all too aware of the current crisis that’s facing some of our most vulnerable children. Starting as a teaching assistant in a special needs school, working closely with teachers, parents and carers on the frontline of the SEND sector, I later worked with a charity providing SEND law support before joining NSN - working with special free schools.

Pupils with SEND have a right to an inclusive education delivered by the expertise of special schools. Yet, in 2018, the Tes identified a trending decrease in the number of mainstream schools offering these types of support for special needs pupils. Similarly, in 2019 the Education Select Committee identified a ‘…chronic lack of places in special schools and lack of visible strategic work to develop more places in a robust way.’

Pre-pandemic, special schools across the country were at full capacity and many local authorities struggled to place pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans in the provision that is right for them. Sadly, these issues are now compounded even further.

I’ve loved working in and around special schools, but there’s been little progress in the sector since 2014 reforms.

However, the Department for Education launched a local authority-led special and alternative provision free school wave 2 which will create up to 3,000 much needed new special school places. What’s more exciting is that some of these new special free schools will be opened by mainstream academy trusts which will be new to special education provision. With the right expertise to support pupils, these trusts hope to bring best practice from both parts of the education sector, giving opportunities for staff sharing and a broader curriculum offer. Examples of trusts opening new special schools include:

Resourced provision and SEND units are another way mainstream and special education can work together. Free school applications have been able to propose these provisions in several recent free school waves and was highlighted in the Department for Education’s How to apply guidance for wave 14.

There have been many examples of free schools responding ambitiously to increased demand for SEND provision across England, but it has not been wide-spread. The Kingston Academy is one of those free schools that has a resourced provision for pupils with SEND, approved as part of wave 4. The school received an Outstanding Ofsted judgement in 2018, with the inspection report highlighting the school’s approach, ensuring pupils in the resourced provision are able to ‘participate successfully in learning in the main school’ and the approach to ensure that pupils ‘benefit from high-quality support tailored to their needs.’

Similarly, Tooting Primary Academy, approved in wave 3, has a resourced provision for up to 21 pupils with autism. In 2015 Ofsted reported the specially resourced provision ‘excellent’ with pupils ‘benefit[ing] enormously from spending time in the [resourced provision] as well as in mainstream classes.’ The school works to ensure their environment is inclusive and as welcoming as possible for all pupils, with pupils in the mainstream school helping to support their peers from the specially resourced provision.

NSN hopes that this pandemic has shown the necessity for high-quality SEN provision. The examples highlighted in this blog post demonstrate the potential for SEND units or resourced within mainstream schools – an opportunity for more inclusive practices, for staff CPD, innovative approaches to teaching and more.