Hundreds of children with special educational needs out of education for years, ITV News finds

Watch Rebecca Haworth's report for the west of the Anglia region

Hundreds of children with special educational needs (SEND) are being denied a school place because of a lack of appropriate provision, research by ITV News has revealed.

Thousands more vulnerable children are being home-schooled - either by choice or because it is the only option left for parents battling against the SEND system.

The investigation by ITV News highlights serious failings in the education of young people who are being left behind as councils fight to balance budgets and provide specialist education to those who need it most.

The numbers also highlight a growing crisis for families, who are being forced to choose between their jobs and their children.

The Department of Education announced reforms to the SEND system in March, pledging to put billions of pounds into special education. They say it remains a priority.

Anastasia Fowler, 12, has been out of school for a year. She has sensory processing disorder, which means she cannot cope in a mainstream school.

For months, her father Danny has been trying to get her into a special school in Norfolk, but they have been unable to find a space.

It means he has had to leave his job working in A&E. He has considered taking the council to tribunal - but, with three other children to support, he said he simply cannot afford to.

Speaking to ITV News, Mr Fowler said: "It's almost broken my family, it really has.

"It's absolutely heartbreaking as a parent not to be able to help her because we just can't afford it. You're talking tens of thousands of pounds which we just do not have and I know a lot of parents in the same situation who just do not have that money sitting around."

Anastasia said: "I got lost all the time [at school] and I was worried that I wasn't going to make it into class. There was too many people coming out of classrooms and stuff. I kind of miss making friends."

Watch Rob Setchell's report for the east of the Anglia region

Figures obtained through freedom of information requests to councils in the East of England show the numbers of children with education, health and care plans (EHCPs), and those who are waiting for one, who are out of school.

A snapshot of the crisis from the start of August shows that in Essex, some 160 children with additional needs do not have a school place. In Hertfordshire, that number is 86, and in Norfolk there are 48 vulnerable children out of school.

The total number of children with EHCPs who don't have any school provision in the ITV News Anglia region is 456.

ITV News also asked for the number of children with EHCPs, and those who are waiting for one, who are being home-schooled.

Across the Anglia region 1,229 children with additional needs are being taught from home. Some of these children are being electively home-schooled, but some are left with no other option than to learn at home with family.

In total the number of children with EHCPs who don't have a school placement is 1685.

You can see the numbers for your council below (all information accurate as of August 2nd 2023).

Tiff Cotterill, from Northamptonshire, has been given a place for her autistic son Albert, but just months before he was due to start at a new specialist setting in the county, the family were told the school would not be built in time. 

Ms Cotterill said: "When his peers and all the other children his age are all starting school he won't be able to, and it just feels like nothing short of pure discrimination against children with special educational needs and disabilities. 

"If this was to happen to a mainstream primary school it would be a national scandal. All those parents that wouldn't be able to go to work or [who] really struggle with childcare, the impact that it has financially as well is absolutely enormous.

"But because they're SEND children - children with special educational needs - it just feels like they don't matter."

Tiff Cotterill from Northamptonshire is fighting for a place for her son Credit: ITV News Anglia

As they try to react to the scale of the crisis, councils across the Anglia region are being forced to spend millions to try and provide places.

In Suffolk, the county council is predicting an overspend of more than £20m, just on SEND services. In Cambridgeshire, the authority is expecting to overspend by £5.4m pounds.

Lucy Nethsinga, the leader of Cambridgeshire County Council is also a representative of Local Government Association, said: "Some of those children will get great support at home and it'll be the right place for them to be. But I am worried that there are others who just simply don't feel that school is somewhere they feel safe and comfortable and that's a real problem for us."

Research from the LGA suggests councils are facing huge black holes in their budgets.

Mrs Nethsinga said: "It's in the billions. If you're talking about Suffolk having an overspend of £17m in a single year, and there are definitely councils around who have cumulative overspends of £25-30m, I think it's definitely probably £1.2 or £2bn pounds nationally.

"The DFE are aware of it and the LGA has been raising concerns about it for some considerable time."Reacting to ITV News's investigation, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: ""The investigation from ITV Anglia shines a light on what I've seen right across the country. So many parents and so many families just not getting the support, the help they need or the suitable places within school."

A spokesperson from the Department of Education said: A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Every child deserves to have access to high-quality education that helps them to enjoy their childhood and achieve good outcomes.

“We have recently announced an additional four special free schools to be built in the East of England, in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk alongside the existing 83 already committed to opening across the country. We are putting significant investment into the high needs budget, which is increasing by a further £440 million for 2024-25, bringing total funding to £10.5 billion – an increase of over 60% since 2019-20.

“Our recent Improvement Plan sets out how we will reform the support system for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, creating consistent high standards across the country, and making sure parents do not have to battle for support.”

In March the Government announced billions in funding for the SEND system, adding that 33 new schools would be built across the UK. In August, the Government pledged to build 7 extra schools across the country, with two in Norfolk and two in Cambridgeshire.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...