Rising numbers of families are requesting help for children with special needs, but thousands are being denied assistance, an investigation has found.
Figures obtained by the PA news agency show that the number of initial requests for a child to be assessed for an education, health and care plan (EHCP) has risen by more than 10% in just a year.
And while councils are agreeing to the majority of these assessments, there has been an increase in the number of refusals.
Percentage increase in the number of initial requests local authorities agreed to assess
Charity leaders warned that many children are being “unfairly turned down” for EHCPs, leaving families to fight for support.
Council leaders said they are concerned that authorities are in danger of being unable to meet their legal duty towards children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send).
Ministers have announced an extra £780 million for Send children next year and announced a review which will look at how services can be improved.
EHCPs identify a child’s educational, health and social needs, and set out what support the youngster should receive.
The data obtained by PA through freedom of information requests to England’s councils show that the number of initial requests for plans rose by 10.6% between the 2017/18 and 2018/19 academic years – from 53,307 to 58,950.
There was an 8.5% increase in the number of initial requests local authorities agreed to assess in this period, from 38,843 in 2017/18 to 42,152 in 2018/19.
But at the same time, the number of requests refused rose by nearly 500 – from 14,610 to 15,097 (up 3.3%).
These figures are based on data from 107 English authorities.
The total number of requests made each year is not equal to the numbers agreed and refused as the timeframe for some requests will cover more than one academic year.
However, PA’s analysis indicates that roughly seven in 10 assessment requests are agreed, and around a quarter are refused.
Of 77 councils that gave full, comparable data, the figures indicate that in 2018/19, around one in eight (12.1%) initial requests that were originally refused, were later agreed, for example on appeal.
The investigation also examined the number of plans approved following assessment and found a 2.7% drop in the numbers agreed between 2017/18 and 2018/19, falling from 31,136 to 30,291.
And there was an increase in the numbers of EHCPs denied, with 2,694 denied in 2018/19, up from 2,364 the year before (14%).
These figures are based on comparable data from 89 authorities.
Lynn Baker, who leads the National Deaf Children’s Society’s legal support for families, said: “Countless children are being unfairly turned down, leaving stressed and physically-exhausted parents to wade through legal battles they’re not qualified for and can’t be expected to fight.
“Many have nowhere left to turn and no option but to give up.”
She added: “Even when EHC plans are granted, some families face an agonising wait for support to arrive and helplessly watch their child endure a daily struggle to get by.”
It very much feels like you have to be good at playing the game, negotiating.
Mark Gill, who estimates he and his wife Shelley each spent around 100 hours working on an EHC plan for Albie, his five-year-old son, said he felt like he had to “play the game” in order for Sutton Council to properly assess and deliver on Albie’s needs.
He said: “It very much feels like you have to be good at playing the game, negotiating.
“We were successful but not every parent has access to that information.
“The EHCPs are legal documents, they’re quite complex and hard to understand.
“You can read it and think ‘that sounds alright’. It’s only when you get legal advice that you realise it doesn’t meet the needs.”
Number of pupils in England with EHCPs
Official figures show there are currently 354,000 pupils in England with EHCPs, up 11% on 2018.
Councillor Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “These findings support our long-term concern that councils are in danger of being unable to meet their statutory duties for children with special educational needs.”
She said that while the LGA was pleased the Government had provided extra funding for children with special educational needs next year, “without sustainable long-term funding the situation will get worse as the number of children who need support continues to increase”.
Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism, said: “It can often take a long time to secure an assessment for an EHC plan and even then, the outcome is not guaranteed – with many children turned down or offered support that doesn’t meet their needs.
“Often the only option left to parents in these cases is going through a lengthy and arduous Send tribunal – which can cost thousands of pounds and place a huge strain on families, both financially and emotionally.”
Jane Harris, director of external affairs at the National Autistic Society, said “These findings reinforce what the families of autistic children have been telling our charity. Autistic children are being held back by a broken special educational needs system. Families can often only get the support their children need through expensive and stressful legal action.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “Local authorities must follow the law when making these decisions, and where a request is refused, families have the right to appeal to the First-tier Tribunal.”
They said the Send review “will be looking at how we can improve the support that children and young people with Send currently receive”.