Parents of children with special needs more ‘demanding’ of school staff – study

Parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities are becoming more “demanding” of school staff due to increased need and limited resources, a report has suggested.

Schools and academy trusts are facing “significant challenges” around special educational needs and disabilities (Send) provision, according to the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

The research, which interviewed multi-academy trust (Mat) chief executives, school special educational needs coordinators (Sencos) and Mat Send leaders, suggested that some academy trusts are worried about “litigation” as they have been unable to meet parents’ expectations due to a lack of support.

It said: “Sencos reported that the parents of pupils with Send were increasingly demanding more from them, driven by the increased level of need and (in some cases) worsening LA [local authority] provision.”

Schools are coming under increased pressure with Send staffing, navigating relationships with parents, accessing external support and dealing with “inconsistencies” between local authorities, the report said.

The study, which interviewed staff in 19 Mats in England between November 2023 and January 2024, said: “The growing complexity of pupils’ needs has strained resources and placed pressure on mainstream schools due to a lack of special school places.”

It added: “Some reported that they were increasingly unable to meet parents’ expectations due to a lack of resources and/or available support, which pushed them into an adversarial position, with some Mats reporting a fear of litigation.”

Sencos reported experiencing a “notable rise” in the number of pupils with education, health and care plans (EHCPs), which help pupils with Send access support in school, following the Covid-19 pandemic – but they said there had been no corresponding increase in resources to address these challenges.

Some interviewees were concerned that efforts to meet the need of Send pupils “came at the expense” of support and provision for non-Send pupils.

The report concluded that Mat Send leaders play a “pivotal role” in centralising Send efforts, facilitating collaboration, and providing expertise and support to individual schools.

One Senco said: “Having a director for Send and inclusion gives you the confidence when you are struggling with tricky kids and demanding parents, to suggest something completely different as you have the expert there to talk it through with the parents.”

The NFER is calling on the Government to prioritise increased funding for the Send system to address staffing challenges, provide adequate resources for schools and local authorities, and support effective provision for Send pupils.

Matt Walker, report co-author and senior research manager at the NFER, said: “It is critical that fixing the Send system remains a top priority for the Government.

“A good start would be addressing staffing challenges and providing adequate resources for schools and local authorities.”

Last month, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan acknowledged parents are having to “fight to get the right support” for children with special educational needs and she vowed that the Government “has a plan” to deliver 60,000 more places to meet the needs of pupils and their families.

Her comments came after Department for Education (DfE) figures showed around two in three special schools in England were at or over capacity in the last academic year.

There were 148,000 special school places reported across 1,077 schools in England as of May last year, but there were around 152,000 pupils on the roll during the same period, according to the data.

Margaret Mulholland, Send and inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Despite the best intentions of teachers and school leaders, the special educational needs system has been brought to its knees through lack of investment.

“Unless more resources are made available, some children will continue to miss out on the support they need to thrive at school.”

A Local Government Association (LGA) spokesperson said: “Councils share the Government’s ambition of making sure every child with Send gets the high-quality support that they need.

“The previous reforms to the Send system set out in the Children and Families Act 2014 have, however, failed to achieve the goal of improving provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

“Placing children and young people at the centre of the Send system was right, but the reforms set out in the Act were not supported by sufficient powers or funding to allow councils to meet the needs of children with Send or hold health and education partners to account for their contributions to local Send systems.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our ambitious Send and Alternative Provision improvement plan sets out how we will make sure all children and young people receive the support they need.

“We are providing £2.6 billion to support the creation of places for children and young people with Send or who require alternative provision, so parents can be reassured that their child will receive the right support at the right time, near home.

“Combined with the special free schools programme, this is creating over 60,000 new specialist places across the country.”