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Surge in families seeking help for children with special needs, figures show.

Charities link rise in requests for support to lack of school funding and cuts to early-help services.



The number of families seeking help for children with special needs from their local councils has surged by 11 per cent in the past year, figures show, as cuts to early-help services and reduced funding for schools cause a growing number of parents to feel this is their only option.

Data obtained by PA through freedom of information requests to England’s councils shows that initial requests for a child to be assessed for an education, health and care plan (EHCP) – which identify a child’s needs and set out the level of support they should receive – increased from 53,307 to 58,950 between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.

Experts said the rise was largely down to funding pressures in education and children’s services.

Increasing pupil numbers and legislative changes in the way special needs support was provided are also suggested to have played a role.


The data shows that while councils are agreeing to the majority of these assessments, there has been an increase in the number of refusals – with 15,097 rejected in 2017-18, compared with 14,610 this year.

Of 77 councils that gave full, comparable data, the figures indicate that in 2018-19, around one in eight requests that were initially refused were later agreed, for example on appeal, according to PA.

This has prompted charity leaders to warn that many children are being “unfairly turned down” for EHCPs, leaving families to fight for support.

Tim Nicholls, head of policy and public affairs at the National Autistic Society, said: “Families tell us time and time again that they’re having to go through expensive and stressful legal action to receive the support that is essential to their children’s education.

“The funding just isn’t there for many autistic children to get the early support they need, meaning parents are being forced to fight for an EHCP.”

He said the government’s review into the special educational needs and disability (Send) system must bring about a real change, adding: “Too many autistic children are being failed by a broken special educational needs system that limits their ability to reach their full potential.”

Figures show there are 354,000 pupils in England with EHCPs, up 11 per cent on 2018.

Ministers have announced a £780m injection of funding for children with special educational needs next year, and launched a review that will look at how services can be improved, which is set to be published next spring.

Councillor Judith Blake, the chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said that while the government’s funding announcement was welcome, the situation would get worse without “sustainable long-term” funding.

She added: “These findings support our long-term concern that councils are in danger of being unable to meet their statutory duties for children with special educational needs.”

A report by the LGA on support for children with special needs in December 2018 found that funding cuts to schools were pushing more parents to request EHCPs from their local authority.

“Funding pressure often results in the loss of support staff upon whom schools rely to provide pastoral support and the flexibility for small group or individual differentiation, which is critical for children and young people with Send,” the report said.

“Where mainstream schools can no longer afford to meet the needs of a pupil on SEN support through their base budgets there is a strong incentive to pursue an EHCP in order to attract additional funding.”

It also found that accessing key services supporting children and young people with Send and their families, such as family-based early-help services, was becoming “increasingly difficult”, thus “adding another incentive for parents or mainstream schools to apply for an EHCP assessment in the hope of securing whatever support might be needed”.

It comes after the High Court ruled against families who were challenging the government’s approach to Send, saying there was “no unlawful discrimination” in the way ministers made provisions for funding.

The families who launched the legal challenge pledged to continue their fight for better provision following the ruling in October.

A government spokesperson, said: “This government is committed to making sure the system works for all families, which is why we are investing an extra £780m for SEND next year.

“The number of children with EHC plans is rising, with nearly 49,000 more children getting one last year, up from 42,200 in 2017. As a result of the rise in the number of requests for EHC plans, so too has the number of refusals. However, local authorities must follow the law when making these decisions, and where a request is refused, families have the right to appeal to the first-tier tribunal.”