The education of many UK children has been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Any child, parent or teacher can testify to the daily challenges of remote education. However, many of those hit the hardest, and facing long-term consequences, are children with identified or emerging special education needs (SEN). In this article, L.E.K. Consulting assesses the short-term demand dynamics of SEN with regard to COVID-19, and why it is important that commissioning and provision be prepared for increasing demand.

The impact of school closures 

Schools were closed to most pupils between March-July 2020 and January-March 2021. Whilst the c. 300,000 children with education, health and care plans1 (EHCPs) were eligible and encouraged to attend school throughout the pandemic, recently published state school statistics show that their attendance rate was poor, especially during and after the first lockdown (see Figure 1). Parental choice, self-isolation and illness were the key reasons. In addition, most of the c. one million students who receive SEN support were not allowed to attend school during the closures unless they were defined as vulnerable or children of key workers.

The quality and effectiveness of schools’ online provision varied significantly. Learning at home was tough for all children, but especially for the many with EHCPs who require a face-to-face environment and a high level of direct teacher input. The short-term progress of these children stagnated at best but more likely declined during the pandemic; after almost a year of online-only-based education, their long-term outlook has been affected too.

There is a backlog of SEN assessments

In many cases, systems came to a grinding halt, creating a significant backlog of children in need (see Figure 2). Compared to the 2018-19 average, the number of new EHCP requests dropped 25% during March-July 2020, 16% on an annualised basis — equating to around 10,000 children not getting an EHCP in a timely manner.2 The number is increasing, and we expect to see a wave of demand for places at special needs schools. We anticipate that up to 1,000 children from the current backlog will benefit from a place in the independent sector.

Reviews of existing EHCPs have also been delayed as LAs have struggled to conduct routine annual assessments during the pandemic, even remotely. When reviews did take place and a child’s needs assessed changed, requiring a change of school, parents and commissioners tended to keep the child in their existing school to avoid additional disruptions for them. Whilst this continuity offers some temporary relief, the child’s needs could escalate if the existing school cannot deliver the additional resources needed due to a lack of experience, expertise or bandwidth. The backlog of existing plan reviews is an extra burden for commissioners, and some of these delayed reviews will result in referrals to independent special needs schools rather than state operated schools — i.e. adding to demand from the identified backlog. 

What next?

However the build-up of children with EHCP needs is not the pandemic’s only major impact on special education. The pandemic has triggered deeper-rooted and longer-lasting dynamics — e.g. slower speech, delayed social and emotional development, mental health of young children, and loss of learning in the early years. The impact of these factors will not come as an immediate wave; indeed, these will more likely lead to a stronger and faster rising tide that needs to be managed in the future. In many regions of the UK, independent providers have become vital partners to commissioners to address the needs of youngsters, and those providers’ services will be in high demand — especially for those with high-quality propositions.

1SEN support for those of lower complexity and EHCPs for those with more significant needs
2Department for Education (DfE ); FOI responses; L.E.K. analysis 

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