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NAHT’s coronavirus member survey six: findings from special schools and alternative provision settings

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Following a highly successful Crowdcast event for SEND leaders, NAHT ran an England-only survey focused on special schools and alternative provision settings. The survey ran from 4 to 10 June 2020, and it received submissions from 578 respondents. 

Thank you to those of you who responded to this survey; we greatly appreciate your input. The findings help us to understand the complex challenges members face and the type of support required by special schools and alternative provision. They also strengthen the calls we have made, and will continue to make, to the government for improved support for the SEND sector. They also highlight the need to gather essential intelligence directly from the profession. 

Below is a summary of the key findings. We have already shared these findings with the Department for Education (DfE), and we will continue to use them to inform our discussions with the government. 

The DfE's guidance

When asked about the DfE’s covid-19 guidance for special schools/alterative provision:

  • 86% of respondents did not agree that the DfE's guidance had been published in a timely manner
  • nearly three quarters (73%) of respondents felt that the delays in producing appropriate DfE guidance had affected their setting’s ability to make effectively planning decisions
  • only 13% of respondents agreed that the DfE’s guidance had supported their setting to effectively plan their provision during the coronavirus pandemic. Three quarters of respondents disagreed with this
  • more than half (54%) of respondents had been involved in producing additional guidance to supplement the DfE’s guidance
  • the majority of respondents (81%) had used guidance published by external sources to supplement the DfE’s guidance
  • nearly three quarters (73%) of respondents felt that the DfE’s guidance on the use of PPE did not meet the needs of pupils and staff in their setting. 

NAHT asked respondents about how easy or difficult it is to implement the government’s five ‘infection protection and control measures’ in their settings. The responses we received are listed below from most difficult to easiest.

  • 60% of respondents felt that minimising contact and mixing of those in the school building was difficult to implement, and almost a quarter (22%) said it was impossible
  • more than half (51%) of respondents felt it was difficult to implement good respiratory hygiene practices in their settings (eg using and disposing of tissues), and 10% felt it was impossible
  • More than half (54%) of respondents felt it was difficult to implement the regular cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, and 7% felt it was impossible
  • 46% of respondents felt it was difficult to implement the frequent and thorough cleaning of hands, and 8% felt it was impossible
  • 40% of respondents felt it was difficult to prevent those with coronavirus symptoms, or who live with someone experiencing symptoms, from attending their settings, and 7% felt it was impossible. 

When asked about what challenges prevented respondents from implementing these measures, the top four challenges are as follows:

  1. Difficulties maintaining appropriate social distancing (97%)
  2. Some pupils not understanding new measures and routines (88%)
  3. Difficulties minimising contact between pupils (88%)
  4. Difficulties minimising staff contact with pupils (87%).
Additionally, the majority of respondents:
  • had concerns that the necessary changes to school routines may have a negative impact on the emotional well-being and mental health of pupils (85%)
  • felt that some pupils might not be able to communicate whether they are experiencing coronavirus symptoms (80%)
  • felt it would be difficult to maintain necessary staff to pupil ratios to meet additional requirements (eg handwashing and staggered breaks) (61%). 

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

For the majority of respondents (87%), it has been necessary to increase the use of PPE in their settings during the coronavirus pandemic. 

When asked about the challenges that respondents have experienced, or foresaw experiencing, in relation to the use of PPE in their setting, the top four are as follows:

  1. The use of PPE during restrictive physical interventions (67%)
  2. Confidence in the appropriate use of PPE on school transport (62%)
  3. Sourcing guidance on the appropriate use of PPE (53%)
  4. Difficulties obtaining adequate supplies of PPE (51%)
    o Of note was that 45% of respondents are concerned about the suitability of PPE for pupils with particular needs (eg suitability of facemasks for pupils with a hearing impediment). 

School transport

When asked about the challenges that respondents face in relation to school transport, the top four challenges are as follows:

  1. Lack of capacity to implement social distancing on school transport (70%)
  2. Concerns about the ability of transport operators to adhere to appropriate hygiene and infection control measures (67%)
  3. Difficulties arranging ad hoc transport to take pupils home if they display symptoms (55%)
  4. Lack of school transport capacity to implement staggered drop-off and collection times (53%). 

Education, health and care plans (EHCPs) and health care support

  • More than two thirds (70%) of respondents have utilised the temporary statutory changes to EHCPs to adapt provision for pupils in their setting
  • When we asked how respondents have utilised these temporary statutory changes, the most common answers are as follows:
o Changes to school attendance patterns and enabling the provision of remote learning from home

o Changes to the provision of therapeutic services. Some respondents stated that provision was now being delivered over the phone or online; others stated that provision had ceased all together or the location and frequency of therapy had been altered

o Reduction in the support provided by health and social care services.
  • The majority (86%) of respondents are planning to carry out annual reviews for pupils with EHCPs in the 2020 summer term
  • Respondents planning to carry out annual reviews were asked about the challenges they face in doing this. These are the top three:
  1. Difficulties engaging parents/carers with the review process (74%)
  2. Lack of face-to-face time with pupils to effectively inform their annual review (73%)
  3. Difficulties directly involving pupils in the review process during the coronavirus lockdown (eg lack of assistive technologies) (66%).
  • More than half of respondents (59%) have found it difficult to maintain the necessary health care support for pupils that require it during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Returning to school at a later date

We asked respondents about their concerns in relation to returning to school at a later date. Their top four concerns are as follows:

  1. Supporting new pupils starting at your setting (90%)
  2. Settling pupils back into school following disruptions to their routines (84%)
  3. Managing potential increases in challenging behaviour from pupils (82%)
  4. Supporting pupils with their emotional well-being and mental health (82%).

Additionally:

  • 80% of respondents are concerned about managing parents and carers' unrealistic expectations of school provision
  • Three-quarters of respondents are concerned about the lack of certainty on the public health situation
  • More than two thirds (68%) of respondents are concerned about pupils who may continue to shield at home
  • 41% of respondents indicated that staff positions remain unfilled due to disruption to recruitment
  • More than a quarter (28%) of respondents have indicated that physical adaptions are not in place for new pupils attending their setting. 

The survey also garnered the following anonymous quotes from special school leaders about the reality of the current situation: 

“I’ve never felt so stuck between a rock and a hard place. We want to welcome back as many pupils as possible and know how important it is to have all pupils back in school. However, many of our children present with challenging behaviour and very few (if any) understand social distancing. They often mouth items and have no understanding of the risks associated. Our school could end up a centre of disease transmission. It’s a very stressful situation.” 

“The government is either oblivious to or do not have the understanding of how our schools run and the complex needs of our students. They need to come into school and see just how unworkable it is and how unsafe it is. The government has no idea of how the impact of the regulations have and continue to affect my colleagues and my students. Totally irresponsible and totally high risk. Russian roulette is being played with SEN school staff and students.” 

“Special schools and AP should have been considered at the first stage, not as an afterthought. We deal with some of the most complex and vulnerable pupils – many will not have had support or encouragement at home. School is the best place for them as we provide the boundaries and safeguarding that they desperately need.” 

“We were on a call trying to work out what distancing might look like when a sixth former who had missed me came and affectionately licked my face. We have nominated our entire school as a bubble, but with only 12 learners in, we already have more than 30 people in the bubble. Our main drive has been to try and do the best we can for our families – our staff members have unquestioningly accepted this, and they are putting child well-being over any of their anxieties. We have two learners who are staffed 3:1 and spend a good portion of their day in a vehicle. Our most complex learners do not understand why the world has changed and where everyone is; we are seeing some challenging behaviour as a result. There has been a slight shift more recently, but through much of this, the school has been seen as a panacea when families are struggling. It has been difficult to be the only solution on the table.” 

“There seems to be a lack of understanding of what special schools are doing, and we’ve been overlooked by the government's briefings and the media. Trying to manage unrealistic expectations of parents is very challenging, which is exacerbated by the media.” 

“Lack of support on a local and national level has been pretty significant. Briefings gloss over SEN, decisions are vague and heads have been left to fend for themselves. And still, there is the real threat of summer holidays being taken. Little regard for the profession has left heads feeling disillusioned.”

First published 19 June 2020