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Extra special school places are only part of the solution

Last week, the government handed our sector the opportunity to drive real change in SEND provision. The time is ripe to shake up the sector, and the recent announcement regarding additional funding for 60,000 new SEND places represents a significant opening to address the pressing needs of students and families across England.

However, we must seize this opportunity to enact meaningful and sustainable change that goes beyond mere financial investment. Otherwise, we run the risk of prioritising quantity of places over the quality of those places, which is a false economy for all concerned.

The variability in the quality of provisions across the country poses a significant concern. We cannot afford to create ‘schools for life’ that merely manage children through to an endpoint. Instead, we need to prioritise high-quality provisions that enable students to reintegrate into mainstream settings, to avoid perpetuating a cycle of exclusion and marginalisation, both of which have a costly emotional and financial impact.

Let’s move away from the mentality of “at least they’re in school”; instead, we should strive for provisions that fully engage students and their families and support their holistic development. By delving into data on outcomes such as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) and student return rates back into mainstream settings, the sector can identify what works and develop strategies to address the root causes of what Gillian Keegan has rightly called a crisis in SEND provision.

The additional £850 million in SEND funding is undoubtedly a welcome step towards addressing the needs of pupils and their families, but funding alone is not sufficient to remedy the deep-rooted issues affecting SEND provision. Quality and sustainability should be at the forefront of our efforts.

Across the North of England, where we are based, the need for places is acute. This injection of resources offers a chance to expand capacity and improve access to specialised support services.

We must build a culture of collaboration and shared learning

At Consilium Evolve, we have witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of alternative provision. Our approach, described in a recent Ofsted inspection as “life-changing”, is centred on preparing students to reintegrate into mainstream settings, equipping them with the skills and confidence they need to succeed. This requires not only academic support but also a holistic approach for students and their families that addresses the underlying factors contributing to school avoidance and disengagement.

The Evolve model is sustainable as students successfully reintegrate back into mainstream school freeing up places for others who need the additional support. For those with us in year 11, not one student has left without a place in further education or employment.

This is not the same experience for all students across the country. Too often, parents have to fight tirelessly to secure the right support for their children, while students are relegated to makeshift provisions that fail to meet their needs.

This crisis is further compounded by the emotional toll of the pandemic. As ‘Covid babies’ come through the system, the demand for specialised support services will only continue to grow. Mainstream schools cannot be expected to meet all their needs, particularly those with complex needs and poor mental health. We need very specialised provision that acknowledges the unique challenges facing these students and provides tailored, sustainable support.

To this end, we propose the establishment of a sector-led taskforce comprised of stakeholders from across education to develop a roadmap for transformative change that places students firmly at its centre. This taskforce would be responsible for formulating a comprehensive framework for the allocation of funding, drawing upon data-driven insights and best practices from successful models both domestically and internationally.

Alternative provision schools act as a vital safety valve for mainstream settings. By providing targeted support for students with SEND and emotional-based school avoidance issues, they help to alleviate the pressure on mainstream schools and prevent further disengagement and exclusion.

That’s why we must build a culture of collaboration and shared learning, with mainstream schools drawing upon the expertise of specialised provisions and vice versa. Transferring skills and sharing best practices is essential if we are to create a truly inclusive education system.

It is time for a fundamental shift in how we approach SEND provision, one that prioritises collaboration, innovation and long-term sustainability to shape a future where all students have access to the support and opportunities they need to thrive.

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