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Special Education in Crisis: Where Can They Go?

Special school leaders are being forced to cram vulnerable pupils into converted therapy spaces and staffrooms as surging demand and scarce places elsewhere pushes them over capacity.

New figures shed light for the first time on the places crisis in state-funded special schools – some of which are breaching building safety guidelines because pupils have nowhere else to go. Even if a child is lucky enough to get a place at a specialist provision, what happens if the school does not have the funding or teaching staff available to support that child? The system is at breaking point with a lack of spaces, a lack of funding and a lack of staff - how have we got here?

Over 1.5 million pupils in England are identified as having SEND (an increase of 87,000 from 2022). Overall SEN percentage is up from 16.6% to 17.3%. EHCPs up from 4% to 4.3%. SEN Support up from 12.6% to 13%. The most common SEN needs are autism, Speech & Language Needs and Social, Emotional and Mental Health Needs.

Freedom of Information data obtained by Schools Week shows that 54% of special schools had more pupils on roll than the number commissioned by their council. During a visit I made to a new special school opening in North London, they initially had 90 places available for their first cohort but had over 600 applications. The failure to keep up with rising needs also comes despite more than £380 million being spent on expansions, new buildings or new schools.

Getting Creative with Spaces

Schools are having to get extremely creative with the few spaces they may have, having to make dramatic transformations in order to accommodate the oversubscription of pupils. One school turned an on-site garage, a large cupboard storing physiotherapy equipment and the staffroom into classrooms, as well as a satellite site costing £40,000 a year. This school is 33 places oversubscribed this year.

“It wasn’t so bad with Covid, but at the moment we haven’t got a staffroom. We’ve created little kitchen areas in little cupboards, and nooks and crannies. Staff were supportive, but it is something we need to look at to make sure we’ve got the space for them too.”

Many schools I have worked in or visited don't have dedicated spaces for staff to escape to, unwind and enjoy their lunch which is also undoubtedly contributing to the rising rates of teacher burn out. Staffrooms have become therapy rooms or classrooms, stock cupboards have become sensory rooms and offices become resource rooms.


Local Authorities provide some funding for each pupil with additional needs, but there are warnings from teachers that it is not enough.

  • £26,000 - The cost to a school of a teaching assistant providing one-on-one support for a year.

  • £9,000 - The amount local authorities provide to cover costs.

  • £17,000 - The remaining amount of money schools must fund out of their own budget.

Many Headteachers are worried that if funding becomes too tight, she may have no other option but to say they're unable to support more children with special educational needs. Every school has inclusion at their heart and no headteacher wants to turn away children, but the sad reality is that is schools do not have the funding, they will be unable to hire additional teaching assistants who could ensure that that child's needs are genuinely met whilst they are at school.

If we don’t find creative ways, we find ourselves with overcrowded classrooms or inadequate provision which puts us at risk of getting a ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ Ofsted.

The Reality

All of the above makes for difficult reading, but by putting it in context, we can truly understand the impact it will have on thousands of lives. This is a true account but all names have been changed for privacy reasons.

Josie's 5 year old son, Adam, is autistic. He is currently non-speaking, has complex sensory needs and is very much on his own agenda. He requires support with toileting and personal care. With special schools oversubscribed, Josie applied for Adam to go to a local primary, only to be told they would be unable to take him. The school did not have the funding - they were already too stretched and there were no facilities within the school where they could give Adam what he would need to thrive and flourish in school.

Josie was unable to find Adam a place in school, meaning that he had to stay at home and be homeschooled. Whilst many parents take this option willingly, this meant Josie had to give up her work, severely impacting on her household income. She also was worried that, as Adam was at home with her most of the day, this would impact on his social skills and it was uncertain when he would obtain a space in a school, whether it was mainstream or specialist.

Thousands of parents and carers across the UK, and many other countries, are fighting daily to ensure that their child has the access to education they deserve. To express your support and to find out more information, visit the SEND Reform England site.

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