Keeping young people with SEND active during the cost of living crisis

Vicci Wells, Head of Sport at the Youth Sport Trust, Trustee of a large Multi Academy, and a parent, blogs about the role schools can play to keep young people with SEND moving during the cost-of-living crisis.

I was recently in conversation with a young person and his mum. Jake was diagnosed with autism, ADHD and severe anxiety at the age of nine. This September he began attending a mainstream secondary school, but it became so traumatic he would spend the entire day with his head buried in his hands on a desk unable to cope. Jake would be distressed, crying, screaming and even resorted to harming himself such was the trauma of being in a setting that wasn’t meeting his needs. Currently he is out of education, and his learning for now is watching engineering videos online. He has dreams of becoming a train engineer. Whilst there are some specialist provisions nearby, the local authority is not in a position to pay for it. Jake’s mum shared she felt decisions are being made, not on what is best meeting the needs of Jake and other children, but by what is available due to funding.

As the cost-of-living crisis continues, both homes and schools are feeling the pinch. School budgets are being further squeezed, valuable support staff and teachers are either leaving the sector or being faced with split hours between children and year groups so there is less one-to-one time available for each child. This is having a significant impact on those children who require support the most. Time-lag delays in support systems leave vulnerable children even more exposed due to wider school funding problems which mean schools often cannot act quickly and/or flexibly.

Alongside this, partly due to a delay caused by Covid-19 and partly due to a lack of investment, children are facing significant backlogs in receiving Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) and allocated funding, as well as long waiting lists for SEND assessments. The result is that both mainstream and special schools are struggling to meet the needs of pupils with SEND (even when there is an EHCP in place). There are now 473,255 pupils with an EHCP, an increase of 10% on 2021 and a staggering 50% on 2016. We are seeing a system that cannot cope with the increased number of pupils with EHCPs, and that is excluding those who are awaiting support but due to backlogs in the system are still not getting the help they so desperately deserve. There has also been a rise in the number of pupils with EHCPs in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), with almost 30% of pupils having one. In the worst case, children are not receiving any provision at all –children like Jake, who are at compulsory school age and not in education.

It is therefore unsurprising that for many children and their families with SEND, this cost-of-living crisis is biting even harder, and thousands of children are losing out on proper education and the support they need to learn. When it therefore comes to the prioritisation of being physically active, and the impact this can positively have on physical and mental health, there are children who are now unhappier and unhealthier than ever before. One third of disabled children take part in less than 30 minutes of sport and physical activity per day. 30% of disabled children are already less active compared to 21% of non-disabled children, and disabled children’s activity levels decrease significantly as they get older. Sadly, disabled children are also twice as likely to be lonely than their non-disabled peers and more likely to feel they have no one to talk to, feel left out and to feel alone. We are hearing from National Governing Bodies of Sport and community sports clubs how children with SEND are not returning to sport after the pandemic, and examples of families having to withdraw their children from such provision due to costs of travelling there or specialist equipment that is needed.

What’s the solution?

Its easy from the above to feel completely overwhelmed, and perhaps a little lost around what is achievable given all the difficulties and pressures. The below is certainly not a ‘magic or cure all’ list, but perhaps does provide a little light in terms of guidance and four practical tips on supporting all our children and young people with SEND in our schools to become happier and healthier whilst in our care:

  1. Be realistic. We recognise the considerable financial and staffing pressures schools are under. Schools want to be able to support all children in their school as best they can but are also working with limited resources. What are simple adjustments or professional learning opportunities that could be made that do not absorb funding but could make a world of difference in practice? There are some fantastic insightful guides that are freely available. Try out All About Autism e-learning, Top Sportsability and SEND resources or SEND PE. Remember not to wait for a diagnosis of SEND before considering reasonable adjustments.
  2. Focus on a collaborative approach between school and home to support the development of young people with SEND. Families should feel comfortable in sharing any reasonable adjustments schools could make, regardless of whether they have an EHCP. A willingness to work together to ensure this need is met is a great start. We must find ways which enable children and young people to self-regulate their mood and re-build their confidence and resilience as they come back from a global pandemic. Exercise, for all its well-known benefits, offers this at all levels for all learners. Sport Sanctuaries may be a welcome addition here. Every teacher is a teacher of SEND and there are some wonderful examples from schools sharing how sanctuaries can support with managing behaviour, and importantly supporting children to feel happier in their learning.
  3. Work with families to support young people to be physically active at home, signposting them to opportunities via newsletters and communications; there are some great ideas here which can support children to have fun, and play together as a family. Consider how families can help the school.- Tightly stretched schools need the support of parents/carers more than ever. Is there support to fundraise, volunteer, offer training on their child’s SEND needs? Do your families work for a business that may be able to sponsor sports teams, provide equipment? This could be a fantastic way of building relationships between the community and school.
  4. Pool resources where possible. Schools across a Multi Academy may find it beneficial to pool some of their resource, both financial and human to share ideas, practice and adjustments, whilst exercising strong caution to ensure strong duty of care to every school and every child.
Published on 18 October 2022