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Government failing children with special educational needs during Coronavirus crisis, new NAHT survey reveals

A new survey released today (Friday 19 June) by school leaders’ union NAHT reveals the concerns leaders of schools for children with special educational needs have with the guidance and resources they have been given by government for dealing with Coronavirus, especially around PPE.

578 leaders of special schools and alternative provision settings responded to NAHT’s survey between 4-10 June. The majority (87%) said it has been necessary to increase the use of PPE in their settings during the Coronavirus pandemic, but 51% have experienced difficulties obtaining adequate supplies.

Nearly three quarters (73%) said that the DfE’s guidance on the use of PPE does not meet the needs of pupils and staff in their setting. 45% said they are concerned about the suitability of PPE for pupils with particular needs – the suitability of facemasks for pupils with a hearing impediment, for example.

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said: “The government’s official policy for special schools is insufficient. Schools have been told they should not need additional PPE to keep staff and children safe, but our members are telling us the opposite, with the majority reporting an increase in need. There are also worrying inconsistencies between government PPE guidance for education settings and the PPE advice provided for the health and care sectors, which clearly does not take into consideration the level of medical provision regularly required in special schools.

“Not enough attention has been paid to the needs of special schools during the Coronavirus crisis. The government must step up to protect our most vulnerable children by providing comprehensive specialist advice and sufficient suitable PPE.”

Marijke Miles, head of Baycroft special school in Hampshire, and chair of the NAHT SEND committee, said: “The government continues to treat children with SEND as a total afterthought, when, as the most vulnerable in our system, they should be the first priority. Lack of timely and specific guidance, alongside worryingly conflicting advice between different sectors thwarts the efforts of leaders and practitioners who do have the relevant expertise to make good, local decisions and arrangements. Our families and children trust us but school leaders and governors in the special sector are becoming overwhelmed with this burden when it appears that those directing our efforts centrally are so divorced from the operational reality of keeping special children and their families and staff safe at this time. We need clear, urgent advice which is fit for purpose, informed by experts.”

NAHT’s survey also revealed the challenges facing school leaders when supporting pupils with special educational needs:

  • 88% said that some pupils may not understand new measures and routines,
  • 85% had concerns that the necessary changes to school routines may have a negative impact on the emotional wellbeing and mental health of pupils,
  • 80% felt that some pupils might not be able to communicate whether they are experiencing coronavirus symptoms,
  • and 61% felt it would be difficult to maintain necessary staff to pupil ratios to meet additional requirements (e.g. handwashing and staggered breaks).

Additionally, when asked about the challenges in relation to school transport, 67% had concerns about the ability of school transport operators to adhere to appropriate hygiene and infection control measures.

Marijke Miles continued: “A further indicator of the lack of insight into the world of a child with SEND is the failure to provide consistent and appropriate advice around PPE in school transport. Thousands of medically, physically and socially vulnerable children are moved around the country every day, with some journeys of well over an hour. This means being in a confined space with drivers, often with multiple contacts – the antithesis of social distancing. And yet no PPE is being advised. How can this be safe?”

NAHT also received the following 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, have no understanding of the risks associated, and our school could end up a centre of disease transmission. It’s a very stressful situation.”

“The government are 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 have 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 over 30 people in the bubble. Our main drive has been to try and do the best we can for our families – our staff team have unquestioningly accepted this and are putting child wellbeing over any of their own anxieties. We have 2 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 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 government 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, 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.”

Press and Media contacts:

Steven George
NAHT Head of Press and Media
01444 472886
07970 907730

Rose Tremlett 
Senior Press Officer 
07545 354363

Email : press.office@naht.org.uk