Special needs children: more than 25k refused assessment for an education, health and care plan in England

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Campaigners have warned that being denied an education, health and care (EHC) plan can have lasting effects on the wellbeing of a child and affect their opportunities in later life.

Tens of thousands of children were refused an assessment for an education, health and care (EHC) plan in England last year, raising concerns that disabled children face a postcode lottery in accessing support.

More than a quarter (27.1%) of applications from the West Midlands were found to have been refused last year – 1.7 times more than in the North East which refused only 16.1% of assessments.

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Child disability rights campaigners told NationalWorld that stretched council budgets have resulted in “huge variations” across England concerning whether children even receive an assessment to try to access the legal protection.

EHC plans are a legal document that cover a child or young person up to the age of 25 and describe their special educational needs, what support they need and the outcomes they want to achieve. An EHC assessment is carried out by local authorities and means a child can access certain educational support such as teaching assistants. They can also open up specialist schools.

Last year more than 25,000 applications were thwarted at the first step in England when the initial request for a child to be assessed was turned down, representing 21.9% of all requests, according to data published by the Department for Education (DfE). Of those actually assessed, 5.8% were not given an EHC plan, affecting just under 4,200 children and young people.

Getting an assessment is the first step in accessing an EHC plan in England – children and young people can get one if normal special educational needs (SEN) support cannot meet their needs. Educational, health and social care professionals involved with a child provide evidence to produce a report on what support they may need.

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There are more than 1.5 million school pupils in England with special educational needs (SEN) – 4.3% of all pupils have a EHC plan. The percentage of all pupils with SEN but no EHC plan (SEN support) has increased to 13.0% from 12.6% in 2022. Almost 400,000 pupils in England have an EHC plan.

The proportion of children and young people being refused an assessment has marginally decreased over the last year, with 2021’s figures showing 22.3% were refused an assessment. However the overall number of applications being refused last year was the highest since current records began.

Stephen Kingdom, campaign manager at The Disabled Children’s Partnership, an umbrella policy organisation made up of over 110 charities, said that not getting an EHC assessment means children are “extremely unlikely” to be able to access extra provision needed at school and at home.

“The reasons for not assessing might be a lack of qualified staff, we know there is a shortage of educational psychologists in many areas, or a lack of budget. Funding is not ring fenced by the central government,” Mr Kingdom said.

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The government said it is “cutting bureaucracy” in the education, health and care plan process, and improving mediation for when families disagree with a local authority decision.

Worst affected areas in England

Local level figures show huge differences in the proportion of assessments being refused. Six local authorities were found to have refused at least 40% of EHC assessments. These were:

  • The Isle of Wight – 43.5%
  • Windsor and Maidenhead – 43.3%
  • Warwickshire – 41.8%
  • Peterborough – 41.1%
  • Leicestershire and Lambeth – both at 40%

The top 10 areas with the highest proportion of assessments refused in 2022 can be seen in the chart below. If you can’t see the chart click here to open it on a new page.

In total 61 out of 152 local authorities refused at least a quarter or more of EHC assessments.

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The regional figures show a similar picture with two-thirds of regions having a refusal rate of above the national average of 21.9%.

The West Midlands, East Midlands and East of England had the highest refusal rates in 2022, while the North East and North West had the lowest refusal rates. The chart below will allow you to compare how your region has changed over time. If you can’t see the chart click here to open it in a new tab.

A lasting impact on children

Being denied an EHC plan can have lasting effects on the wellbeing of a child and affect their opportunities in later life, Mr Kingdom said.

"What matters is whether a disabled child and their family get the support and services they need,” he said. “But with cuts to services and shortfalls in available support, often not getting an EHC assessment means you are extremely unlikely to be able to access the extra provision you need to thrive at school and at home. That might be equipment, such as a wheelchair, or a one-to-one specialist teaching assistant helping you access lessons.

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"Similarly, without an assessment it might be hard for parents to secure a place in an appropriate school that can meet a child’s needs. If children are in the wrong schools that is likely to reduce their ability to learn and decrease opportunities later in life.”

Commenting on the figures, a spokesperson for the DfE said that reform is happening, saying “We’re creating bespoke plans with almost half of all local authorities to improve their SEND services, building new special schools where they are needed, cutting bureaucracy in the education, health and care plan process, and improving mediation for when families disagree with a local authority decision.

“We are now working hard to quickly deliver this reform, tackling the issues within the system exacerbated through the pandemic, to make sure that children get the extra support they need earlier and more consistently across the country.”

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