THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 has left pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) attending special schools and colleges in England around four months behind in academic development and five months behind with their wider development.

This is according to new findings from ASK Research, supported by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

The policy briefing, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, highlights the results of a survey of 192 headteachers as well as in-depth interviews with 40 specialist headteachers and 40 parents and carers of children and young people who attend specialist settings. The interviews, conducted in April-June 2021, aim to understand the continuing implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on pupils in special schools and colleges in England.

This is one of two briefings focusing on the pandemic’s impact on teaching and learning; and pupils’ well-being and mental health. The other, based on NFER research, also funded by the Nuffield Foundation, focuses on mainstream schools.

Both briefings reveal interim findings, with the full reports planned for release in autumn 2021.

Special schools and colleges key findings

Effects on academic progress

  • Headteachers reported they thought pupils were around four months behind in their academic development. This is greater than the two and a half to three month loss of progress previously reported for pupils in mainstream settings (though the methods and timings of the studies are not identical’).
  • Headteachers from special schools and colleges with the highest proportions of disadvantage reported greater effects on academic progress. Pupils in these settings were on average thought to be around seven months behind in their literacy, six and a half months behind where they should have been with their numeracy skills and eight months behind in their behaviours for learning (i.e. between three and five months further behind than their peers).

Effects on wider development
Academic development is only one aspect affected in pupils with Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) over the course of the pandemic.

  • Headteachers rated pupils at special schools and colleges as, on average, five months behind with their emotional wellbeing and mental health.
  • They rated pupils as around four and a half months behind with their behaviour and self-regulation; social and communication skills; and independence, self-care and life skills.
  • For pupils with health and physical conditions, headteachers reported they were on average over five months behind in their physical development.
  • Pupils in settings with the highest levels of disadvantage were rated to be an additional three to four and a half months behind their peers in each of these areas (making them up to eight and a half months behind where they were expected to be).

In terms of reasons for lack of progress, headteachers and parents pointed to the following four key factors which they felt contributed to the scale of losses reported.

Pupils in special schools and colleges have had reduced time in school, also.

  • Despite the government stating that all pupils with an EHCP would get a place in their setting, one in four pupils still did not attend. This was due to a mixture of special schools not having sufficient capacity and parent choice.
  • As of May 2021, data from headteachers suggests around one in ten pupils had still not fully returned.

Supporting pupils when they are not in school is difficult

Remote learning was very difficult for families of pupils with EHCPs. In common with many other parents, parents of pupils with EHCPs identified issues with IT access (headteachers reported around a third of families had limited IT access) and competing demands on their time, including working and supporting home learning of other children.

In addition, specifically for parents of a child with an EHCP:

  • Engaging children with a screen, or learning from home, was challenging due to their Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND)
  • Many parents were unable to help their children to learn or provide the specialist support they would receive in school
  • Many children’s needs and behaviours worsened, due to the changes and disruptions to normality, and families had little support with this.

It is a legal requirement that these pupils receive health, therapy, and care input, but their access to this has been severely reduced.

  • Only around seven in ten pupils with EHCPs, attending their special school, received their full legally required support during the latest lockdown (January – March 2021).
  • Around one in ten received little or no input at all.
  • Only around four in ten pupils at home received the support they were entitled to from either health or care services, with around a quarter getting little or no support at all.
  • Headteachers reported that in May 2021 around two in ten pupils attending special schools and colleges were still not receiving their full health and therapeutic input or their social care support.
  • Around two thirds of pupils at home were not receiving the full health or care input they should be in May 2021.
  • In addition, families said they were struggling to manage with reduced or no access to respite services.

Special settings are still having to restrict what they can offer pupils as they, and wider society, operate under safety restrictions.

  • On-site activities, including therapies and social events, were either severely limited or cancelled. Over half of headteachers (52 per cent) reported they were having to limit their in-school activities.
  • Off-site activities (e.g. swimming, travel training, work experience) are also not able to take place in most settings. Seven out of ten headteachers (70 per cent) said they were having to restrict their usual out of school activities.
  • Headteachers and parents said that these activities were integral to the lives of pupils with EHCPs, as well as a way to deliver some of the care and support needed, and that not being able to access them was impacting pupils’ development, wellbeing and behaviour.

Conclusions and recommendations

The report makes several key recommendations for government, locally and nationally. An effective recovery for special schools and pupils should:

  • Focus on more than educational attainment.
  • Specifically address emotional wellbeing and mental health – of pupils and staff.
  • Increase health and care input for pupils with EHCPs.
  • Extend support to families – ensuring they also recover and are able to support their children.
  • Be informed by experts – trusting headteachers to decide what their setting needs and how best to allocate funding.
  • Allow sufficient time for real recovery – not just offering a ‘one off’ or short-term solution.
  • Address pre-existing funding shortfalls in SEND, which will have been exacerbated by the changes brought about by the pandemic.

Commenting on the findings, Amy Skipp, Director of ASK Research said: “These findings are of huge concern. The pandemic has clearly been particularly traumatic for pupils with special educational needs, their families and the staff who have worked so hard to support them. They deserve proper help now to recover.

“It shows a real lack of understanding of special needs and the work done by specialist providers to think a ‘one size fits all’ approach to recovery is going to work. Our research shows pupils with EHCPs have been the most severely affected and so The Educational Recovery Plan needs to focus on them and what they need to recover: reinstatement of the full health and care input they are legally supposed to get; help with their mental well-being; chances to be out in the community, mixing with their friends and having new experiences; and respite for families.

“If we do not adequately resource this vitally needed support now we could be paying a much higher price for years to come”.

Angela Donkin, NFER’s chief social scientist, said: “This research shows special school pupils, teachers and parents have been severely impacted by the pandemic and the resultant missed learning.

“Teachers and school leaders are struggling to offer the full package of education and support which their pupils so badly need and deserve. Exhausted staff need long-term support from the Government as a matter of urgency.”

Ruth Maisey, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation said: “This research highlights that it has been particularly difficult to support pupils with special educational needs who were unable to attend their special school or college during the pandemic.

“The education recovery plan must recognise and respond to the different and ongoing challenges faced by special schools and children with special educational needs.

“Support for these pupils should focus not only on lost learning, but also on advancing their well-being, independence and physical health.”

* The briefing: Special schools experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic in May 2021: what they need now can be read here.

Source: The Nuffield Foundation