Ensuring a quality education for SEND pupils through Covid-19 and beyond

Hannah Tait

Lockdown learning has been incredibly tough for young people everywhere, yet for the 1.3 million children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in England, this period has posed unique challenges and magnified the ever-increasing attainment gap between mainstream and non-mainstream learners. With new reports that one in five pupils with special educational needs have been unable to return to school due to Covid-19 restrictions, how can we make sure these learners receive the educational support they need to thrive going forward?

Exposing the gaps

Many schools stayed open to support the children of key workers and vulnerable students, such as those with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) during lockdown. Still, a high proportion of SEND children at risk of infection or who were already shielding could not physically attend school. Furthermore, many families were unable to access SEND learning resources, digital devices and general support remotely over the past six months. The charity Family Fund, found that almost 62 per cent of parents surveyed felt that formal support, such as access to tutors and therapists, has declined since the start of the pandemic. Furthermore, an overwhelming 93 per cent said that this period has had a negative impact on their child’s health and wellbeing.

As a result of the disruption, these children are at greater risk of falling behind academically and missing out on a quality education. Sadly, this is not a new problem. The gulf between learning provision and support available for special educational needs students and their peers existed long before Covid-19; the pandemic has only highlighted and exacerbated these inequalities. A 2019 report from The Education Endowment Fund found that the attainment gap is greatest for children with SEND compared with mainstream education pupils: with a 48 per cent difference in SEND pupils’ ability to reach the standard for reading, writing and maths at KS2 compared to other pupils.

Cutbacks in funding and differences in the availability of services for SEND children in the UK has not helped the problem. According to research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the budget for local authorities to spend on children’s services has been gradually decreasing over the last ten years. Over one billion pounds has been cut for essential youth services, such as Sure Start Children’s Centres, which provide support for young people in disadvantaged areas. Without sufficient funding and resources, the emotional strain and pressure on teachers, families and pupils inevitably mounts.

While the disparities between SEND children and other students should never exist in the first place, the spotlight which Covid-19 has shone on the SEND attainment gap should spark much needed action to improve education provision for vulnerable learners and level the playing field going forward.

Improving access to specialist resources

There are many reasons why schools might struggle to assist children with SEND, from not having the teaching capacity to a lack of appropriate specialist resources. With the potential for vulnerable students to fall behind in learning during Covid-19, making sure that all local authorities and education settings have adequate funding for alternative provision has never been more important. It’s essential that schools, local authorities and external teaching and learning providers can work together to provide cohesive learning support and care for families with SEND children, whether that’s in the classroom or remotely.

There’s also a wealth of brilliant online education resources such as Oak National Academy and Tute who have been providing free lessons for SEND students during the pandemic, with many continuing to offer unrestricted access to their platforms as schools reopen. It’s important that schools and families are aware of what’s available to them so they can select the best resources for the individual child.

For a longer-term strategy, schools might look at partnering with online teaching platforms who specialise in supporting SEND students, to ensure those children have access to learning materials and qualified teachers remotely. Local authorities should also be able to continue sending special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs) into schools and delivering virtual sessions as needed, providing individual pupils with the personalised learning they need. Consistent support and routine are essential during this period of upheaval to help SEND children continue progressing and catch up on any learning missed.

Improving the availability of specialist resources and one-to-one support in schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas will certainly help, but equipping school staff with the knowledge and skills to use these resources is just as crucial. Formal training and support for teachers to understand how to use specialist resources in class and therefore improve the level of teaching they can provide for learners on EHCPs, will go a long way in helping to close the attainment gap.

The benefits of online learning for SEND pupils

It’s been difficult for many children with special educational needs to learn remotely, however for some, studying online has been a positive experience. For example, pupils who struggle with autism or anxiety can benefit from the flexibility and control which virtual learning provides; they can learn at their own pace and to a schedule which suits their needs, without the distractions of a traditional classroom environment. Teachers and parents can also choose virtual lessons with visual cues and reader support features which can help make topics more accessible and engaging for SEND children. None of us know exactly what the year holds for schools, but online learning can work well as part of a blended learning approach or as a standalone tool for children who cannot attend schools or require catch up support.

The pandemic has highlighted some glaring gaps in the learning provision and support available for SEND children, however we now have a unique opportunity to change things for the better going forward. Education must facilitate learning for pupils of all abilities and backgrounds, which means more accessible services and resources for SEND pupils to make sure no child misses out on learning during the pandemic, and beyond.

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