It has been more than two years since the government commissioned a review of the SEND (special educational needs and disability) system in England’s schools. Since then, there has been a global pandemic, wholesale ministerial change at the Department for Education, and criticisms about the lack of progress from the Parliamentary public accounts committee, but we are yet to see the outcomes of the review itself.

Throughout this time, Adoption UK has been engaging with the Department for Education (DfE) about the implications of the SEND review for adopted and previously looked after children. In The Adoption Barometer 2021, 80% of respondents had one or more adopted children with either SEN Support, or an Education, Health & Care Plan (EHCP). For these families, the SEND review lies at the intersection of their child’s needs as a care-experienced person and their needs as a child with SEND.

In the current SEND Code of Practice, previously looked after children are overlooked as a cohort. Despite the DfE recognizing the long-lasting impact of trauma and disrupted attachments by introducing pupil premium plus, designated teachers, and virtual schools for this group of children, these issues are not on the radar in SEND legislation.

Yet when it comes to effectively supporting children with SEND, care experience matters. Research by the Education Policy Institute [link: SEND-Indentification_2021-EPI.pdf ] reveals that primary-aged children are less likely to be identified with SEND if they have been the subject of child protection plans, are in their first year of being looked after by the local authority, have had frequent absences from school or have moved schools during early primary school, all of which could apply to previously looked after and adopted children.

Delay in identifying SEND means delay in providing appropriate support. Children can start to fall behind and find school more and more challenging, with all the negative impact on their self esteem and wellbeing that comes with feeling like a ‘failure’. By the time SEND needs are identified, looked after and previously looked after children are far more likely to have Social, Emotional and Mental Health needs (SEMH) as their primary area of SEN, compared to other children with SEND. How often are these SEMH needs exacerbated by late or non-diagnosis of communication needs, autism, sensory processing difficulties or FASD?

Even when a child’s SEND is identified, the challenges are not over. Problems with the implementation of the system are well documented, with reports of timescales not met, refusals to assess leading to tribunals, documentation that is not fit for purpose and independent specialist reports being disregarded. The Parliamentary public accounts committee’s inquiry into SEND found that the system had “significant failings”.

For parents and carers of previously looked after children, there is the additional challenge of navigating not only the SEND system, but also healthcare professionals, post-adoption support professionals, the Adoption Support Fund, Pupil Premium Plus, the designated teacher and the virtual school. Too often, families experience a merry-go-round of professionals all pointing to the next person in the chain, while children continue to struggle in school, sometimes for years.

For some families, the challenge is insurmountable. Each year, around 6-8% of adoptive families will home educate one or more of their adopted children. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, one in ten respondents to our Home Learning During Covid-19 survey said that they were seriously considering long-term home education. The overwhelming majority of these families would prefer their child to be in school if the right school could be found.

Once a family feels forced to remove their child from school because their needs are not being met, all support, including EHCP support ceases. These families are bearing the financial burden of their child’s education in the belief that it is the last, best hope for their child’s future. It shouldn’t be this way.

Adoption UK believes that there is a strong case for identifying the particular needs of previously looked after children with SEND in any future version of the SEND Code of Practice and ensuring joined up working between all the agencies that support this group of children.

We have been told that there will be a consultation on the SEND review proposals early in 2022. We want to make sure that the voices of adopted and previously looked after children and young people, and their parents, guardians and carers are heard loud and clear. As soon as the consultation is open, we will provide links, and supporting information to help all our families use their voices to ask for the education our children deserve. Our children did not have an equal start in life. They deserve an equal chance in education.