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Revealed: The shortfalls within Suffolk's SEND support services as 18,000 youngsters require support with just 2,000 school places available

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New figures have revealed the extent of demand on Suffolk’s special educational needs school places as 18,000 youngsters require SEND support from stretched services.

But just 2,000 places currently exist at either special schools or specialist units.

Suffolk County Council has confirmed that there are currently 5,900 youngsters who require an education health and care plan (EHCP) – a document outlining specific requirements for SEND pupils’ education.

Rachel Hood, Conservative cabinet member for education.
Rachel Hood, Conservative cabinet member for education.

In addition, a further 12,000 youngsters not eligible for EHCPs require some kind of SEND support meaning nearly 18,000 youngsters out of Suffolk’s 100,000 school-age pupils need assistance.

Including spots opening this September, the council has 1,415 places at special schools, and a further 560 at specialist units attached to mainstream schools – nearly 2,000 places in total.

While only pupils on EHCPs can gain a special school place and many can be taught in mainstream schools, the figures mean that thousands of pupils are competing for just a small pool of places.

Penny Otton from the Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group.
Penny Otton from the Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group.

The number of youngsters on EHCPs alone has nearly doubled from the 3,000 in 2014 on what were then called Statements of SEND.

Rachel Hood, Conservative cabinet member for education, said: “I am committed to making sure that all children receive the right education in the right setting.

“Of course, there are challenges with this, particularly as the number of children who need specialist education provision continues to grow. However, we have plans in place to make sure that we continue to respond to and work hard to meet this demand.”

The council has embarked on a mammoth £45million investment programme to create 870 new SEND places – 210 of which opened last year with a further 310 opening this academic year.

That has included new special schools such as Castle East in Bungay, and three planned for 2022 – two in Bury St Edmunds and one in Ipswich.

The first phase of the capital programme will see 789 places completed by September 2023, with the remainder following once a review has been completed.

The council has said it will “refresh the sufficiency strategy to ensure we are aware of future demand,” expected to begin in spring next year.

Comparison data from the Department for Education for 2020 indicates that Suffolk is broadly in line with neighbouring counties, and demand on SEND places remains a national one.

In Suffolk, 41% of SEND children were in mainstream schools compared to 35% in Norfolk, 44% in Cambridgeshire and 45% in Essex.

27% of Suffolk’s SEND youngsters were in specialist settings compared to 26% in Norfolk, 30% in Cambridgeshire and 35% in Essex.

Penny Otton, from the Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group, said it demonstrated that the Government needs to up its investment in Suffolk.

“This is a national crisis, which will only be resolved when the government realises that local authorities are strapped for cash,” she said.

“Suffolk has one of the lowest government grants for education in the country. I feel so sorry for those parents and children that are having to struggle and fight for their rightful place for a child with special needs.”

Work by a dedicated cross-party task force completed in January 2019 recommended a major investment programme of SEND places included an annual review if provision, but fears have been raised that this is not happening quickly enough – particularly with the long lead time between identifying need and school places being available.

Elizabeth Johnson, Labour group spokeswoman for education, said: “The additional 870 places is a step in the right direction, but the review previously agreed to is needed urgently.

“The education and life chances of SEND children in the county are being damaged with every month that this continues. Whilst not all children with SEND need to be placed in specialist schools, there is clearly more demand than provision as it stands at the moment, and the issue will be compounded by further delay.

“We also need better support within the mainstream school system so we have more options for helping these young people in the most suitable settings for their individual needs.

“Getting this right now will prevent cost further down the road and will also make a huge difference to the lives of families of SEND children in the county who are crying out for further support.”

Her predecessor, Jack Abbott, who opted not to run for re-election in May but continues to lobby for education improvements in Suffolk, said the new places “were a crucial step forward in tackling Suffolk’s SEND crisis,” but was “never meant to be a case of ‘job done’.”

He added: “Nor was it ever a magic bullet to solve the many problems in the system. This had to be the first in a constant stream of improvements.

“We have seen many families continue to struggle to get the support their child requires, with some worrying that they don’t even have a school place for the start of term. Clearly, there are simply not enough appropriate places and that situation isn’t going to improve with demand increasing every year.”