Back to school for children with SEN?

31 Aug 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 31 Aug 2021

Photo by Alireza Attari on Unsplash
Photo by Alireza Attari on Unsplash
This academic year will hopefully face far less disruption than the previous two. This is important for all children – especially those with special educational needs.


The pandemic has been tough for everyone, but the challenges have not been shared equally.

Children and young people with special educational needs have been left with a much heavier burden than most during the past 18 months.

It is vital that, at the start of a new academic year, lessons are learnt and applied to the coming year to make it significantly better for this group of local young people.

Between last October and this summer, the National Children’s Bureau NI carried out an evolving study into the effects of the pandemic on children and young people with SEN, alongside partners Mencap, SENAC (Special Educational Needs Advice Centre) and Specialisterne.

The final report, Insights into the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people with SEND in Northern Ireland, was published last month. It found that the negative effects of the pandemic on children with SEN have been both broad and deep.

Young people with SEN probably rely disproportionately on the sort of in-person services and activities that have seen huge disruption since March 2020. At the same time, this cohort also includes a higher number of boys and girls who are at high risk of harm from Covid-19 (certainly in comparison to other young people).

But there is another context, namely the continuing pressures on (and, in some cases, utter failures of) statutory support for these children, such as the “institutional discrimination” children and young people with SEN face from their own education system.

NCB has called this situation the “double disadvantage” – the pandemic introducing significant and inherent challenges that have hampered already ailing services.


In general, SEN services should be better. However, those services that do exist and which are effective are precious to those who use them. Covid-19 itself caused huge concern for children and young people with SEN, and their families. At the same time, they saw these services shrink or even disappear – leading to more anxiety.

That dynamic, and its consequences, are marbled throughout the NCB paper. The report’s findings include:

  • Fear and insecurity about the direct health effects of the virus
  • Negative impact on education, development and employment – due to closure of schools, and other factors
  • An increase in social isolation and loneliness, due to social mitigations which led to the closure of clubs/groups children might attend
  • Reduced support for parents and carers (which itself aggravated the already heightened increase in social isolation)

Per the report: “Some respondents felt that COVID-19 was being used as an excuse by some agencies not to provide services for disabled children or to limit what was on offer.”

This perception exists around situations likes the reduction or withdrawal of support from health trusts (such as the redeployment of occupational therapists), as well as a downgrading of the statutory commitment to services made by the Department of Education (which reduced the obligations on a range of agencies, including the Education Authority (EA), schools and the health trusts again.

Education, for example

There is a central tension at the heart of how children and their families appraise SEN services that illustrates all the statutory shortcomings (both Covid and longer-term concerns) incredibly well:

Children and parents feel that services should be far more comprehensive; children and parents in general really value the services they receive.

This is not a contradiction. It is barely even a paradox. Note that, as per the “institutional discrimination” mentioned above, the education system is quite consciously failing children with SEN by ignoring valid concerns.

Then consider this, from the NCB paper: “The closure of schools was identified by some as being the measure that had the biggest impact on their organisations and the families they worked with, both in the initial and subsequent phases of dealing with the pandemic…

“However, although special schools remained open during lockdown three and children with SEND were eligible to attend mainstream schools, for several participants it was not ‘business as usual’ with several special schools and FE colleges operating on reduced hours while mainstream schools offered supervision, not teaching. This meant that many young people did not have the support they normally have in a school day. Practitioners confirmed what parents claimed and pointed out that, during the third lockdown, children with a statement of SEN who attended mainstream schools were not, in fact, having their needs met simply by the doors of the school being open to them.

“The impact on learning and development: Some parents and teachers reported that there either was a loss of learning and development or feared there would be for the children during the various lockdowns and in the intervening period while the children were at school, as schools were not operating as normal, but also had mitigations in place.”

Double disadvantage

The paper is full of excerpts of conversations with children and young people with SEN and their families.

Not all of them are negative – some of the quotes about children and families getting to spend more time together, for instance, are truly heartening – but many are. And the assessment of services, or lack thereof, is sometimes brutal.

  • “...the home schooling was very difficult with (my son) because his main concern is focus and concentration. So, to try and get on task and try and keep on top of home schooling with (him), and keep on (my daughter’s) medical needs, it was very difficult” (Parent).
  • “...I feel that our kids that have special educational needs, full time classroom assistant etc, I feel that they were just left. We were left to get on to our own devices. There was no guidance, no nothing. No support in any way to help with (my son’s) education” (Parent).

Many of the parents point out that efforts to replace services were either non-existent, or could not compensate adequately for what was lost. Several pointed out that remote learning was all but impossible with their child.

And, of course, all this is against the backdrop of a broad suite of services that isn’t so hot to begin with.

Per the report: “Several participants in this study pointed out that the pandemic did not cause a lack of support for children with SEND, but rather exacerbated an already bad situation in relation to the lack of services and support to adequately meet their needs and the ongoing struggle faced by parents as a result.

“Parents’ views such as these were corroborated by some in the education sector who highlighted the changes to the Special Educational Needs assessment process in the past few years. These changes have meant that it takes longer to get an assessment from an Educational Psychologist in the first place and, secondly, to get adequate and appropriate support for children with SEN.

“A recurring theme from several participants was that families with disabled children or those with SEN were the ‘forgotten ones’, particularly when it came to devising the response to COVID-19 (and especially the lockdowns), the consequences of which were far-reaching for such families.

“Some parents reported feeling that it is always left to them to fight and campaign for their children’s needs to be met and that really there is little, if any, pro-active action taken by statutory bodies to meet these needs.”

Back to school

To date, the pandemic has been extremely difficult for children and young people with SEN, and their families.

The pandemic is not over. We are on the cusp of another school year, one that with a fair wind should be more normal than either of the past two. However, tighter restrictions in future cannot be ruled out.

Creating a comprehensive, functioning system for special educational needs should be a priority for Stormont as we move out of the pandemic. However, lessons need to be learned right now about how to better support this group while Covid-19 remains a heightened concern.

Some of the NCB papers recommendations include:

  • Continued promotion of the vaccine programme: this was seen as key to getting back to ‘normality’, keeping everyone safe.
  • Clear and consistent communication: clear and consistent communication from government to service providers and, in turn, from service providers to parents, to reduce the potential for confusion, provide reassurance to all and create realistic expectations for both service providers and service users.
  • Keep education and respite facilities open:  the closure of schools, colleges and respite facilities has had a profound impact on young people and their families. Parents and some young people felt that keeping such facilities open to deliver normal teaching (not just supervision) should be a priority at all stages because disabled children are already disadvantaged. Closing such facilities further compounds this disadvantage.
  • Speed up the SEN system: The current review of Special Educational Needs provides an ideal opportunity to improve several aspects of the system, including speeding up the assessment procedure and having more timely access to appropriate support so that the educational needs of children and young people are more effectively met.

The organisations says: “Action is needed now, and as part of COVID-19 recovery planning, to ensure that parents/carers of children with SEND do not feel socially isolated and lonely. Government should work in partnership with parents/carers and the voluntary and community sectors to develop packages of support and networks where parents/carers can connect with one another, both for themselves and their families.”

Many children and young people with SEN are about to go back to school. Even without the pandemic, the services and support they receive are inadequate – but that does not mean they have no value.

In navigating the rest of the pandemic, and building towards the future, we need to ensure that what services do exist are protected and perpetuated as well as is feasible. At the same time, work must start now on redesigning (or simply designing) a SEND support system that truly caters for young people and their families.

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