Trying to get back to normal

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As we now start a third school year living with the Covid-19 pandemic, Douglas Silas summaries its impact on children and young people with SEN.

It is now a widely held view that children and young people with SEN and Disability (SEND) have been disproportionately affected as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic (although I accept that those without SEND have also suffered greatly).

In this issue, I am going to try and summarise some things that have happened and also try to look to the future.

What happened during the first major lockdown in Spring 2020?

Although increasing concerns were being expressed from the start of the Spring term in January 2020, it was not until the last week of March 2020 when schools, colleges and other educational establishments were either closed or restricted in numbers.

Theoretically, mainstream placements were then closed to all but children and young people of key workers and children considered to be ‘vulnerable’ (including those with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP)). At the same time, the Government (through the Department for Education [DfE]) asked special schools to stay open.

However, practically, many children and young people with SEN were not able to attend and were unable to access online learning that was provided. Also, many parents (particularly of children with EHCPs), chose not to send them to school, due to safety or educational concerns.

Paradoxically, there were then reports of some children and young people with SEN being less anxious than before, due to there being no pressure on them to be at school or college. At the same time, appeals to the SEND Tribunal (which had been rising significantly in previous years) were the first to move successfully to video hearings.

Oh, and Joe Wicks became a household name with his online PE classes to try to help children stay active!

What happened by Summer 2020?

By the Summer term of 2020, some year groups were allowed to return to formal education in ‘bubbles’. There was new ‘guidance’ being issued regularly by the DfE. It was quite hard for both teachers and parents to keep up with what they could or had to do, as rules seemed to be changing constantly.

By now there was also a clear ‘digital divide’ between those families who could afford technology to help children and young people access online learning and those who could not (although many schools were trying to help as many families as possible by lending them laptops or tablets).

From a legal point of view, there were relaxations to deadlines for Local Authorities (LAs) considering EHC needs assessment requests and concerns expressed by many when the Government (under the Coronavirus Act 2020) also temporarily amended the absolute duty to make the provision in an EHCP a ‘reasonable endeavours’ duty. This meant that, during the specified period, Local Authorities (LAs) only needed to do whatever they reasonably could do to put provision in place, but if they could not, they would not automatically be breaking the law.

Oh, and Marcus Rashford became a household name for campaigning about child hunger, getting the Government to change their policy and extend free school meals for children during the summer holidays! 

What happened in September 2020?

By September 2020, all schools and colleges were reopened,with the Government now saying that returning was vital for children and young people’s education and wellbeing. Arguing that time out of school was detrimental for children’s cognitive and academic development, particularly for disadvantaged children.

From a legal point of view, the absolute duty to secure the special educational provision specified in an EHCP plan came back into force. Although guidance acknowledged that there could be occasions where EHC needs assessments or annual reviews had to be carried out slightly differently.

So schools and colleges stayed open after this?

Not exactly, no…

Although schools and colleges went back in the Autumn term in September 2020, after just one day back in the Spring term in January 2021, many were closed again, due to rapidly increasing Covid-19 numbers. This time though, many parents were sending their children into school or college if they could.

Schools and colleges re-opened fully in March, but by then there was now clear concern about missed education, with headlines like:

• Covid-hit pupils ‘should be allowed to repeat a year’

• One in four UK young people have felt ‘unable to cope’ in pandemic

• Behind closed bedroom doors, a teenage mental health crisis is brewing

From a legal point of view, nothing really changed, although there was now even more guidance issued by the DfE(!) 

What does the future hold?

I would be a fool again to try and predict what is going to happen in the next few months, given the incredible things that have happened in the past year and a half. However, one thing is very clear as I have already said, many children and young people with SEND have been significantly and disproportionately impacted by Covid-19.

As I write this, just after the summer break has started, we still have to wait and see about the benefits of ’summer schools’ and ‘catch-up funding’, meant to support children and young people to catch up on missed learning caused by Covid-19, especially important for vulnerable pupils with SEN.

Finally, from a legal point of view, I have noticed an increase in the past year in the number of parents seeking an EHCP or specialist school/college placement for their child with SEN. I am also seeing many arguments being made for children and young people being allowed to redo a year or stay on for an extra year of their education. 

One thing that I am fairly certain of is that there is going to be a lot more fallout from Covid-19.

Douglas Silas
Author: Douglas Silas

Douglas Silas
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Specialist SEN solicitor Douglas Silas is the Managing Director of Douglas Silas Solicitors.
W: SpecialEducationalNeeds.co.uk
T: @douglassilas
F: @douglassilas

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