TG Escapes Blog

The Challenges Facing SEND Schools Across the UK

by Mark Brown | May 16, 2024 | Blog, Education

This year's Natspec National Conference will be a crucial place for SEND leaders to discuss some of the major issues facing specialist education across the UK. TG Escapes will be in attendance, with our team available to discuss the amazing work we’ve completed for SEND schools including classrooms, workshops, and outdoor learning environments. If you’d like to know more about our award-winning work, speak to us at the show or contact a member of our team.

In the UK, the demand for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) support is rising dramatically, posing significant challenges for mainstream and SEND schools alike. As these institutions grapple with staffing shortages, funding constraints, and unsuitable learning environments, it’s clear that fundamental changes are needed within the industry. 

The key challenges facing SEND pupils

Educational institutions across the UK are currently facing a host of pressing challenges in accommodating SEND pupils. Funding and staff shortages are two of the most crucial issues, with schools struggling to recruit and retain the qualified staff essential for delivering specialised education. Increasing pupil counts, difficulties around EHCP, and facilities that don’t meet SEND needs are also key points that must be addressed. 

Two children using rolling pins within a special needs (SEND) classroom

Staffing challenges

The UK is currently facing a significant crisis in supporting SEND children due to profound staffing challenges in schools. A recent survey revealed that almost every state school in England is grappling with a shortage of support staff, with only six out of 922 schools surveyed reporting that they had no issues. In addition to recruitment struggles, schools are experiencing a severe turnover, losing essential support staff to better-paying work in places like supermarkets. Caring for children with severe learning difficulties is a skilled, challenging job, and requires a competitive salary that in many cases is not funded by councils.

The impact is dire: over half of SEND coordinators cannot find suitable candidates for teaching assistant roles, while three-quarters of school staff say that more learning support assistants are needed. This not only affects the quality of education but also places additional stress on the existing staff, which could cause even more to leave the profession. With nearly 1.5 million pupils in need of SEND support across England, the stakes are incredibly high. There are a few potential solutions, such as offering bursaries similar to those offered for short-staffed subjects at secondary schools, but what is ultimately needed is a dedicated government strategy to tackle the staffing problem.

Rapidly increasing need

The number of pupils requiring SEND support in the UK continues to rise, placing significant pressure on existing educational infrastructures. Recent government data reveals a 5% increase in the number of SEND pupils from 2022 to 2023, totalling over 1.5 million students (Special Needs Jungle has an infographic breaking down the data). This escalation not only strains the physical capacities of schools but also the resources available for tailored educational support. SEND support and EHC plans serve distinct purposes: SEND support offers supplementary assistance within the school environment, whereas EHC plans involve more intensive, individually tailored interventions following a statutory assessment. The increase in students needing these services, which grew by 87,000 in just one year, shows an expansion in demand that outpaces current educational provisions.

While many things could be driving this uptick (An interesting article by UCL professor Dr Jo Van Herwegen points towards awareness and diagnostic criteria as key factors), our educational infrastructure must be able to meet it. This means both an expansion of existing SEND schools and the establishment of new ones.

An outside view of the UK houses of parliament

Funding challenges

Funding, or lack thereof, sits at the heart of many of these problems. Recent debates in the Commons have highlighted a bleak situation across the UK, with MPs from all sides expressing frustration over delayed assessments and a severe shortage of special school places.

This significant rise in EHCPs has far outpaced the availability of provisions, leading to substantial budget overruns, with councils paying for expensive transport to distant schools or even private school places. While the government is increasing funding and committing to opening 60 new special schools, many feel it is not enough, with Education funding campaign group f40 suggesting an additional £4.6 Billion was needed. Similarly, last year The National Education Union stated that funding would need to be £3 Billion higher to meet previous standards. The stark reality is that while funding has increased, many allege that it falls critically short of what is required to prevent the deepening crisis in SEND education.

Support within mainstream schools

Efforts to enhance support for SEND pupils within mainstream schools have become a focal point of governmental reforms aimed at fostering an inclusive education system. In 2023, the government unveiled its plans to transform the SEND and alternative provision system in England, reflecting a commitment to ensuring that all students have the resources and support necessary to reach their full potential.

However, there are issues around acceptance and the quality of provided education. The Department of Education spoke about schools going out of their way to dissuade pupils with ECH plans from attending, including unlawfully refusing admission. Should children gain entry, they still face a wealth of difficulties in many schools. A 2013 study found that children with the highest levels of SEND needs had a large degree of separation from other pupils, teachers, and standard classrooms. If getting SEND students to attend mainstream schools is prioritised, the educational structure must help them to receive high-quality teaching and to partake within regular social structures

The Educational Endowment Foundation has a report with clear guidelines on including SEND pupils within mainstream schools, with 5 key recommendations:

  • Create a positive and supportive environment for all pupils without exception
  • Build an ongoing, holistic understanding of your pupils and their needs
  • Ensure all pupils have access to high-quality teaching
  • Complement high-quality teaching with carefully selected small-group and one-to-one interventions
  • Work effectively with teaching assistants

Disabled child with her carer in a park

Struggles around EHCP

The effectiveness of Education, Health, and Care Plans (EHCPs) is crucial for supporting children with special educational needs, yet timely access to these plans remains a significant challenge. The statutory 20-week timescale for finalising new EHCPs was only met in 50.7% of cases in 2022, showing a low adherence to legal deadlines. A 2024 freedom of information request revealed that 20,000 cases across England were waiting longer than the 20-week window, with 3,000 waiting for longer than a year. Such delays can have profound impacts on children's education, leaving them without the support they need for extended periods. 

These problems are compounded by both increasing need and stagnant funding, leading to many difficulties for parents and children. As this service is run by local councils, the scale of the problem can also vary dramatically, with some councils having a considerably worse rate of missing targets (such as Leicestershire hitting the 20-week target just 3.8% of the time in 2023).

Even when children have an EHCP in place problems can continue, with 35,000 children in 2023 officially lacking suitable provision, and 15,000 officially logged as unknown.

Unsuitable learning spaces

The suitability of learning spaces within mainstream schools and specialised SEND facilities is also under scrutiny. Over half of special schools are operating beyond their intended capacity, reflecting a 15% increase since 2017-18, indicating a pressing need for expanded facilities. Meanwhile, the existing buildings within mainstream schools may not be suitable for students with sensory needs like autism. Concerns have been raised around the designs of newer school buildings, with open-plan "super schools" creating noisy and sprawling environments, that can significantly hinder the learning and safety of students with additional needs. For SEND students, everything from lighting to window placement, breakout spaces, acoustics and more can cause issues, affecting their mental health and ability to focus on learning.

How we tailor our modular school buildings to meet SEND needs

Our SEND building for the visually impaired at Woking High School

Our SEND hub for the visually impaired at Woking High School

TG Escapes is a leading provider of eco-friendly modular buildings in the UK, specialising in bespoke solutions for SEND students. Our designs are tailored from the ground up to create comfortable, safe, and stimulating learning environments for children with a wide array of needs. We utilise biophilic design, which uses natural elements and imagery to create a calming atmosphere that benefits both students and staff (we have a blog exploring how biophilic design can aid students with Autism).

Understanding the unique challenges faced by special schools, our team works on bespoke solutions tailored around assisting children with specialist needs. From standalone classrooms to larger blocks with breakout spaces, canteens, and more, these buildings are meticulously designed to support various aspects of SEND, including communication, cognition, social interaction, and physical accessibility. We can build around easy navigation for wheelchair users and include sensory-friendly elements beneficial for students with autism or sensory processing issues. Essential facilities like hygiene rooms with hoists, quiet areas for sensory regulation, and adjustable furnishings make these spaces highly adaptable and sensitive to the varied demands of a diverse student population.

By partnering with schools to understand their specific needs, TG Escapes can create a building perfectly tailored to their pupils, complemented by a turnkey design and build process and a durable, efficient, and cost-effective modular construction method.

Just some of our SEND projects

A music studio being used by two pupils with autism

Our music studio for autistic pupils at Swalcliffe Park School

We’ve worked across the UK on hundreds of educational projects over our 21 years of operation. Our panelised modular process allows for a broad range of solutions, from single classrooms to two-storey blocks. We build everything from sustainable timber frames and panels, designing to meet net zero in operation as standard. Here are some of our favourite projects we’ve completed for SEND schools:

  • SEND Classroom Block at Hundred of Hoo Academy: Hundred of Hoo Academy was looking for a new teaching block to accommodate their students with SEND needs. We worked with Barker Associates on a building that included 6 classrooms, toilets and changing spaces, alongside quiet rooms and office space. In his 5* review, Mikey Dalton praised our great communication and work.
  • Work Skills and Enterprise Centre at St Joseph’s Specialist Trust: We worked on a beautiful workshop and teaching space for St Joseph’s a residential and day school catering to young adults with complex learning difficulties. Delivering our work on time and budget during the pandemic, the pupils and staff were quick to notice the benefits of natural light and external access from our biophilic design.
  • Performing Arts Studio at Swalcliffe Park School: Swalcliffe Park, a school for boys with autism, was looking for a bespoke space to develop their students' music, dance, and drama skills. The team complemented how our building fitted visually with both the natural surroundings and the Victorian manor that housed the main school facilities.

To read about more of our projects, explore our case studies page.

Looking to know more about our modular classrooms?

We offer a complimentary design service as part of our turnkey package, ensuring that every project meets the specific requirements of its users and has a fully costed upfront price. If you're interested in learning more about our bespoke modular buildings for SEND schools or want to discuss an upcoming project, speak with a member of our team today. 

Tags: SEMH | SEN | SEND

About the author

Mark Brown
Consultant at TG Escapes - Mark has spent time growing up with the army, studying computing before the internet existed, and founding The London Classic Theatre Company, self sustaining for over 25 years. He trained in marketing with Unilever before moving into advertising as a strategist with Leo Burnett, Creative Director at Starcom and founder of award winning creative agency Weapon7. He has a passion for eco buildings and helps run the social enterprise Street Wisdom, providing free creative walkshops around the world.

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