Inclusive education – Welsh Government assessment
The proportion of disabled pupils attending special schools has been steadily increasing for several years. In response, the Welsh Government has introduced significant changes to improve support for children with additional learning needs (ALN), though it is too soon to review these changes’ impact due to delays in implementation. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created specific challenges in relation to disabled children’s access to education, which could worsen educational disparities. However, the Welsh Government has not modified the legal obligations regarding special educational needs.
- The number of pupils with ALN in mainstream schools in Wales decreased from 97,551 in January 2020 to 92,359 in April 2021, while the number attending special schools has increased every year since at least 2003, even when the overall number of children with ALN decreased. Delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a backlog in ALN assessments, which may affect figures.
- The proportion of children with ALN attending special schools has increased every year since 2013–14, rising from 4.1% of pupils to 5.3% in 2019–20.
- In 2021–22, the total expenditure on special educational needs (SEN) provision in schools by local authorities was budgeted to be £457 million, an increase of 5.7% compared to the previous year.
- Disparities in SEN funding across Wales mean that the level of support a child receives might depend on the school they attend, rather than their individual needs. In 2021–22, the largest SEN budget per pupil is £1,275 in one local authority, compared to just £743 elsewhere.
- The Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act (ALN Act), which was introduced after significant delays, contains duties for relevant bodies to have due regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD). This will not apply to UN CRPD Articles 24(2) (a) and (b), which guarantee the right to inclusive education, due to the UK Government’s reservation.
- It is expected that over 90,000 children could benefit from the implementation of the ALN Act. However, the system has faced criticism, including about unequal support for all ALN learners, how identification criteria will be applied and lack of clarity in government guidance on the practical implementation of the act.
- The Welsh Government’s timetable for transferring from the SEN system to the new ALN system was modified in July 2021 to allow educational settings more time to plan for the changes, adding further delays for children already in the system.
- There are concerns about how the ALN Act will be funded, particularly in light of cuts to local authority and school budgets in recent years.
- Disabled pupils reported a higher level of disrupted learning during the COVID-19 pandemic than non-disabled pupils, and there is a risk that the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could increase existing educational inequalities for disabled children.
- Despite the Coronavirus Act 2020 giving ministers powers to relax statutory duties on SEN provision, the Welsh Government chose not to modify these obligations.
- An average of just 2.7% of ‘vulnerable’ pupils, including those with ALN, attended school between March and May 2020. Without appropriate support, remote learning led to specific challenges for pupils with ALN, such as online teaching resources being inaccessible.