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Good intentions, good enough?

A review of the experiences and outcomes of children and young people in residential special schools and colleges

The vast majority of children and young people with education, health and care (EHC) plans are educated in mainstream and special schools and colleges in their local communities. A small number, around 6,000, are educated in 334 residential special schools and colleges, in the state, non-maintained and independent sectors. These placements cost an estimated £500m per annum and typically cater for those with the highest needs, including those with autism, communication difficulties, severe learning difficulties and challenging behaviour, those with social, emotional and mental health needs, and those with profound and multiple learning difficulties. They also cater for some children and young people with a special educational need or disability but moderate or no learning difficulties, some of whom may have mental health conditions.

Many of the children and young people currently in residential special schools and colleges could be educated in their local communities if better support was available. To achieve this, local authorities (LAs) should in future work more closely with parents, clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) and all providers to develop a range of flexible, local solutions for these children and young people. Our vision is that LAs and CCGs would offer a range of services, including mental health and social care support, to ensure children and young people could be educated locally as far as possible, and local schools and colleges would ensure these children and young people felt welcome there. Where appropriate, LAs would consider residential placements, and parents wouldn’t feel they have to fight to access these. Residential special schools and colleges would work more collaboratively with LAs to provide the services they require, be open and flexible about their fees, and give educational progress the same priority as wellbeing.

Currently, children, young people and their families seek a residential placement when local schools have struggled to meet the needs of children and young people with challenging behaviour, when children and young people have had negative experiences in local mainstream and day special schools, and/or when there’s been an absence of support across education, health and social care services. At post-16, some seek a residential placement to learn the functional skills that enable them to live independently.

When needs go unmet in local schools, they intensify in many cases, and behaviours can become ingrained. The search for more appropriate provision leads families to residential special schools and colleges, but some LAs can be reluctant to place here, due to the importance of managing their high needs budget, their desire to keep children and young people in their local communities and, occasionally, a dislike of the independent/non-maintained sector. Many LAs remain reluctant to use residential provision even when they lack a viable alternative placement, which is generally because they have not created provision proactively to meet demand for such places. The lack of an alternative placement inhibits LAs in discussions with providers and, combined with the power of parental preference, can contribute to fees sometimes seeming excessive.

Often because of this reluctance to place, the process of getting a residential placement causes much frustration for some families. Once they access placements, experiences for children and young people are generally very good, reflecting the focus from providers on wellbeing and therapeutic support. However, some seem to focus on this at the expense of educational progress, when both should be the aim, and some young people can be held back by a lack of ambition for what they can achieve. Preparation for adulthood can suffer because of this, and some LAs feel outcomes are not as good as they should be.

This lack of ambition can remain unchallenged thanks to inadequate monitoring of placements by some LAs, with annual reviews regularly going unattended. Some residential special schools seemed professionally isolated, with weak networks inhibiting the sharing of good practice and learning from bad practice.

While some of these findings were negative, we have seen enough examples of good practice to know that the vision set out in this report can be achieved. Our recommendations seek to embed and spread this good practice, by:

• ensuring children and young people with SEND get the services and support they need in their local community (in mainstream or special provision)

• ensuring that local areas have planned and commissioned provision strategically, so that it is available when required

• ensuring the accountability and school improvement systems enable children and young people to achieve the best possible outcomes

To take forward these recommendations, and provide broader, strategic oversight of provision for these children and young people, we also recommend that the Department for Education creates a national leadership board for children and young people with high needs, reporting to the Minister for Children and Families.