A Freedom of Information request has revealed that, contrary to Kent County Council claims, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of children offered places this year in Special Educational Need (SEN) Units attached to mainstream schools.
Although KCC claims there has been no change of policy, the number of fresh admissions to Primary SEN Units has dropped by 75%, falling from 73 to 18 in the past year. It is possible the latter figure will rise slightly over the coming year, as parents realise they may have been misled by some KCC officials telling them that Units are closing, but the fall is still stark.
Kent’s Head of Education wrote to the Kent Branch National Autistic Society in February that the Authority planned to increase the number of Unit placements provided for children with autism in the coming year. However, the reality is that the number of new placements in Primary Autistic Units has declined even faster, from 20 children to 3, refuting her assertion.
There are some 950 spaces available in 63 Units supporting children with: Autism; Hearing or Visual Impairment; Physical Disability; Speech & Language problems or Specific Learning Difficulties, and if this year’s admission level continues these will rapidly become unsustainable and will have to close to children. There is also a decline in numbers for secondary aged Units, although this is not currently so steep as many children follow through from the Primary phase.
KCC is currently undertaking an evaluation of the current changes, although this is being carried out by the very officers responsible for the situation. The difficulty in obtaining the figures suggests official unease over the information, not surprisingly given repeated assertions that Units are still accepting children on the same basis as previous years. I have proposed that this data (which you will find in more detail on my website www.kentadvice.co.uk) should form part of that evaluation, but have not yet had a response.
The new approach sees more children placed in mainstream classes with support from staff in Lead Schools who should have expertise in their specialism, although this clearly places additional pressure on class teachers already dealing with a wide range of SEN. KCC considers no child has been given an inappropriate placement through this change of direction, although this will not be tested until September when the children arrive in their new schools. Already OFSTED reports that some Kent schools have 50% of children with SEN, and I believe the new Academy programme will exacerbate this pressure on the schools that are left behind, to the detriment of all children in these classes.
On a positive note, it is pleasing to see the number of children offered statements of SEN across Kent has been stable over the past three years, as distinct from a fall in many other Local Authorities. My concern remains what will happen in the classroom to those children.