Almost every state school in England is struggling to provide proper support for children with special educational needs because of insufficient support staff, a new survey has revealed.

In a poll of 922 special educational needs and disabilities (Send) coordinators in primary and secondary schools across England, conducted exclusively for the Observer by education consultancy Sendco Solutions, only six schools said they did not have a problem with numbers of support staff for children with additional needs. With teaching assistants typically able to earn more working at their local supermarket, schools say crucial support workers are leaving “in droves”, and they cannot find anyone to replace them because the pay is too low.

More than half of Send coordinators polled (57%) said they were trying to recruit teaching assistants but that no one was applying, or that candidates were all unsuitable. Some schools admit they are being forced to hire applicants who are not suited to the job of supporting children with complex needs, simply so that they have another adult in the classroom.

Abigail Hawkins, director of Sendco Solutions, who spent 25 years as a Send coordinator in a school, said: “Staff supporting children are cracking under the pressure. They are leaving in droves. Schools are holding things together with sticking plasters but we are heading for complete collapse.”

Nearly 1.5 million pupils in England are identified as needing Send support.

One coordinator who responded to the poll anonymously said her school had repeatedly advertised for teaching assistants, receiving either no applications or only unsuitable candidates. “We recruited two TAs [teaching assistants], but we shouldn’t have. It is a case of someone is better than no one,” she said.

Another respondent said: “We need TAs but funding won’t allow. We are making impossible decisions every day about who gets support or who has interventions.”

Send consultant Abigail Hawkins
‘We’re heading for complete collapse’: Send consultant Abigail Hawkins. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Observer

The Observer has also learned that, increasingly, even pupils whose parents have secured an education health and care plan (EHCP) – a legal entitlement to specified support that often takes a battle to obtain – do not have the support they have been promised because schools cannot recruit anyone to provide one-to-one assistance.

Amanda North (not her real name), from Stockport, said she had battled to get an EHCP for her teenage daughter, who is autistic and has dyslexia, but the one-to-one care she was promised was “very hit and miss” because the school had lost TAs and cannot replace them.

She said: “She has emotional problems and damages the skin on her arms but it is hard for her to find someone to go to when distressed. One problem is that she doesn’t present as someone with significant needs because she isn’t the worst-behaved and she understands things – she just can’t read or write them.”

Will Teece, head of Brookvale Groby Learning Campus, a secondary academy in Leicester, said: “These plans dictate how much support a pupil is entitled to, which will typically be carried out by a learning or teaching support assistant. But if you c
an’t recruit, what do you do?”

Teece said his school had lost “great” support staff to supermarkets where they could earn more with less stress. He added: “Supporting a child with complex needs like ADHD or autism and knowing what works for them in different lessons is a really skilled job.”

Melinda Nettleton, founder of specialist law firm SEN Legal, has just taken a local authority to the high court because a pupil had an EHCP but the council had not given the school enough money to provide the support specified in it. “They were paying below minimum wage for the support staff, and of course the school couldn’t recruit. That is happening a lot,” she said. The council settled out of court and cannot be named, but it agreed to pay the going rate it took to hire someone.

“Often these children will know they are failing but there isn’t anyone there to help them,” Nettleton said. “It impacts on the rest of the class too. I’ve seen scenarios where the whole class has been evacuated because of one child kicking off.”

She added: “It must be so disheartening for parents who find they have won the battle to get an EHCP but still lost the war.”

Ofsted’s annual report, released on Tuesday, said that children with Send were among the worst affected by the current workforce crisis in schools. It said many families experienced “significant delays” accessing extra support, and “frequently have a frustrating and adversarial experience of the system”. It noted that only 60% of EHCPs were issued within the statutory 20-week limit in 2021.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, said: “The recruitment and retention crisis in education extends right across the sector.”

He warned that school budgets were under “huge strain”, and the £2.3bn a year for two years announced by Jeremy Hunt in the autumn statement would not fully cover the existing nationally agreed pay rises for teachers and support staff, or stem the flood of staff out of the sector.

The Department for Education said: “We want every child, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, to have access to a high-quality education.” It added that the high-needs budget was being increased to more than £10bn in 2023-24, with training for up to 5,000 new early-years Send coordinators.


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