In their latest pupil number projections, the DfE indicated that they expect there to be an increase in Special School places of 13,000 over the period 2017 to 2026, reflecting an upward trend in the Special Schools population of 29% since 2007.
This will equate to approximately 130 new schools, requiring approximately 6,500 staff of whom around 1,600 will need to be teachers, within the next nine years.
However, currently there is not enough additional capacity being created, which is likely to result in a greater number of children who would ordinarily access specialist provision being unable to do so. Wherever you sit on the inclusion continuum, the impact of this is that families who would prefer to access specialist provision will not necessarily be able to exercise their choice to do so.
A recent report in TES suggests that the current pipeline of schools is 19, creating around 1600 places. If this is indeed the total additional capacity being created then we are looking at there being a significant shortfall.
This means that those children with complex SEND, whose family may have elected to request access to a Special school, are more likely to remain in mainstream. They will of course continue to be entitled to have their requirements met. So whilst we need to continue to invest in the development of Special schools, we also need to support the further development of Mainstream schools to provide a highly effective and inclusive SEND education and one way of achieving that is through collaboration and partnership.
Developing better relationships between the specialist and mainstream sectors is one way of supporting the distribution of expertise. This should be on the basis of an ongoing sharing of knowledge and understanding of SEND, and the temptation to only seek help when situations reach crisis point needs to be avoided. Over time it will be important to explore the extent to which a combination of mainstream schools and special schools within single Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) structures works to support this.
There are also examples of schools sharing the development of specific expertise associated with SEND across partnership structures. Through this, staff in each of a group of schools invests in a particular area, such as Speech, Language and Communication Needs, or Cognition and Learning. These staff are then shared across the group of schools, allowing a collective body of knowledge to be secured in a way that a single school may find more challenging.
A further consideration for the development of better local partnership SEND expertise is the idea of schools buying in blocks of time from the specialist sector at cost, to support continuing professional development in the mainstream classroom. This may help to build pedagogical capacity with regards to meeting the needs of children with SEND. Rather than waiting for the challenges to get to a point where a mainstream education is no longer sustainable, it provides an opportunity to build partnerships that invest in the development of staff so that everyone is genuinely a teacher of SEND.
However, it is important to acknowledge that collaborative approaches with regards to SEND are not about only special schools providing the specialist pedagogical knowledge. It is about fostering a collective responsibility and a recognition of the roles that all settings need to play within an education system that shares responsibility for all of the children within it.
Myself and colleagues from across the sector will be exploring the nature of multi-site leadership of SEND in the upcoming Whole School SEND Strategy Summit on the 20th September. The event is for regional leads, Inclusion Leads, Directors of Inclusion, teachers, senior leaders, SENDCos, parents, trustees and governors - if you are involved with SEND at a cross-school level and have a strong commitment to improving outcomes for learners with SEND we would love to see you there. Details about the event can be found here.