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How has lockdown affected children with special educational needs?

Children with special educational needs and disabilities have been particularly vulnerable to the sweeping changes that have accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic, in particular the closure of schools and cutbacks on additional support services during lockdown.

The differential effects of the pandemic on different social groups have received substantial attention. Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEN/SEND) face additional social and educational challenges during their school years, and are therefore likely to have been particularly hard hit.

In addition, those who had special educational needs during their school years have been shown to face long-term consequences throughout their lives, both socially and economically. This also renders them potentially vulnerable to the current pandemic.

How have children with special educational needs been affected by the pandemic?

One of the issues regularly raised is the impact on children of missing out on school and the consequences for the attainment gap (for example, Andrew et al, 2020). Among those potentially most affected are children with SEN. Continued schooling for children with an Education Health and Care (EHC) plan, which typically represents those with more severe needs, was provided in some cases; but this was not universal, and it did not cover all additional support (Jayanetti, 2020).

Related question: What will be the impact of lockdown on children's development?

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Those children with special educational needs but not an EHC were sent home in the same way as other children. The challenges of home schooling have been well documented (for example, Bol, 2020); but they are particularly severe for those with SEN (for example, O’Connor Bones et al, 2020).

Families of children with SEN are more likely to experience socio-economic disadvantage (Parsons and Platt, 2013; Black, 2019), and socio-economic disadvantage has been linked to less intensive home learning (Cullinane and Montacute, 2020). There is some evidence that families of disabled children have less access to the internet and other technology (Phoenix, 2020). Children with SEN are more likely to suffer from behavioural problems (Fauth et al, 2017), enhancing the challenges for parents (Lach et al, 2009).

Previous research has highlighted the challenges of being in school for children with SEN, including greater risks of bullying (Chatzitheochari et al, 2016). But evidence has also shown the potential of early support for special educational needs to mitigate performance gaps (Parsons and Platt, 2017). While school may often be a challenging environment for children with SEN, there are ways of developing inclusive education further (Sayce, 2020); and keeping children out of school is clearly not a solution.

Moreover, as Figure 1 illustrates, while children with SEN are more likely to be unhappy at school than other children, only small shares overall are very unhappy, and teenagers with SEN are also more likely to find school interesting and to try their best relative to their peers.

Figure 1: Responses to school at age 14, by whether or not SEN, adjusting for age, sex, cognitive ability and attitudes at age 11

Figure showing responses to school

Source: Millennium Cohort Study Waves 5 and 6; children with SEN are those who were identified as having SEN at both ages 11 and 14; all differences are significant at the 5% level.

Lockdown and the closure of schools therefore have specific implications for children with SEN, in terms of their learning support, structure, routine and behaviour. While organisations such as Scope and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) have produced resources for parents (for example, Scope, 2020; NSPCC, 2020), achieving a constructive learning environment is likely to have proved extremely challenging in many cases.

In addition, supplementary support and activities provided outside school – which promote children’s wellbeing, provide social engagement and routine, and act as an additional resource for parents – were also affected by lockdown.

The disruption to routine caused by lockdown can be particularly negative for children with SEN (Lee, 2020; Adams, 2020), and can exacerbate behavioural problems. Lack of structure has negative impacts on the social and emotional development of disabled children, exacerbating mental health problems (Patel, 2020). The negative impact of loss of social contact due to school closures on children with autism has also been identified (Pellicano et al, 2020).

The gap in schooling can also be expected to make the full return to school and consequent social interaction more challenging, especially for children with anxiety problems. Given their need for additional educational support, difficulties in catching up are likely to be exacerbated for children with SEN. A recent study of parents and school leaders indicated that the return to school for children with SEN would be partial and many additional educational and therapeutic activities would be restricted (Skipp and Hopwood, 2020).

As schools have closed, and additional support, respite and rehabilitation services have been withdrawn, there has been a number of compelling media accounts of the pressures faced by parents of disabled children (for example, Hill, 2020; BBC, 2020; Coughlan, 2020).

The Disabled Children’s Partnership has also highlighted parents’ concerns from its survey of over 4,000 parents of children with special needs and disabilities (DCP, 2020). Their report highlights the psychological and financial pressures on parents, as well as the physical and psychological impacts on the children themselves. It also reveals the extent to which support had ceased, with three-quarters of parents reporting the loss of support services during lockdown. A smaller study of parents of autistic children highlighted a number of similar issues (Pavlopoulou et al, 2020).

These studies aside, to date there has been relatively little sustained research attention in the UK to the impact of Covid-19 on children with special educational needs and disabilities. This is surprising given the attention paid to other social groups, and given the potential severity of the consequences of lack of schooling and other activities on children with SEN. As expressed by one mother, we are the ‘forgotten families on the brink of collapse’ (Hill, 2020).

Social work delivery and support for children at risk, among whom disabled children are over-represented, were already under pressure before the pandemic. Such services were severely affected by lockdown, rendering such vulnerable children potentially more at risk (Turner, 2020).

Further evidence on the particular experiences faced by families and children with SEN during this time and how they might be supported in the coming academic year is critical if, as Unicef (2020) puts it, ‘newly collected information on the burden and impacts of Covid-19 does not leave children living with disabilities behind’.

What are the experiences of young adults who had SEN in childhood?

Issues relating to special educational needs are not finished with the end of schooling. There are already long-term differences in the experiences of adults who did and did not have SEN (Parsons and Platt, 2020).

Children with SEN are less likely to achieve academically, and to stay on in tertiary education (Chatzitheochari and Platt, 2019). At a time when being at university may offer some protection from the vicissitudes of the economic devastation wreaked by the pandemic, the lower probability of children with SEN being in tertiary education – or high quality apprenticeships – has the potential to leave them more vulnerable to unemployment and economic inactivity. The lack of suitable post-16 training and apprenticeship routes is all the more significant for these young people.

Related question: What future for apprenticeships after coronavirus?

Related question: How can we protect young people from being scarred by coronavirus?

Using longitudinal data from two nationally representative cohort studies – the Millennium Cohort Study and Next Steps – it is possible to link information on school years to adult outcomes in a specific Covid-19 data collection carried out in May 2020.

Data from the Millennium Cohort Study show that those who had special educational needs as teenagers had, even before lockdown, dramatically higher rates of unemployment than their non-SEN counterparts, many more of whom remained in education (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Economic activity status pre-pandemic and during lockdown (May 2020) by SEN status among young adults aged around 19, UK

Figure showing economic activity by SEN status (aged around 19)

Source: Millennium Cohort Study, authors’ analysis. N=2,268

Looking at an older cohort, aged around 30, shows a similar pattern: while most of this cohort had left education, those who had special educational needs as teenagers were more likely to be unemployed or economically inactive prior to lockdown (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Economic activity status pre-pandemic and during lockdown (May) by SEN status among young adults aged around 30, England

Figure showing economic activity by SEN status (aged around 30)

Source: Next Steps, authors’ analysis; differences between those with and without SEN, N=1,648

The relatively poor economic status of those who had had SEN when at school in the period directly prior to the onset of the pandemic and lockdown shows signs of being exacerbated following lockdown, particularly among the younger cohort. But the data are from May, so relatively early in terms of registering the employment impacts of the pandemic.

It can be anticipated that the end of the furlough scheme and the ensuing redundancies may have a disproportionate impact on this vulnerable group. It will be possible to ascertain if this is the case when the second wave of data that is currently being collected becomes available.

Related question: The UK’s job furlough scheme is coming to an end: what happens next?

Regardless, the growing evidence on the particularly negative impacts on young people, alongside evidence on the ‘scarring’ impacts of unemployment (Bell et al, 2020), are set to have substantial consequences for the economic trajectories of this vulnerable population.

The economic impacts of the pandemic have also been felt directly by those who had special educational needs in childhood in the use of food banks. Other evidence has indicated that parents of children with SEN skip meals to try and make ends meet (BBC, 2020); and there is evidence of increased use of food banks during lockdown (for example, Trussell Trust, 2020), particularly among younger people (FSA, 2020).

Our analysis of both the Millennium Cohort Study and Next Steps studies shows that at both the ages of 19 and 30, those children who had had special educational needs while in school were more likely to be using food banks: 4.1% compared with 0.5% without SEN among 30-year-olds; and 7.1% compared with 1.3% among 19-year-olds.

At the same time, when looking at social outcomes among these young adults at both the ages of 19 and 30, we find no evidence that those who had had SEN in their school years felt less secure, more stressed or lonelier following lockdown. This is despite evidence suggesting that disabled adults more generally are feeling the social impacts more heavily (ONS, 2020).

Given recent work on the social consequences of disability in childhood (Parsons and Platt, 2020), these findings are unexpected. They perhaps reflect the fact that these young adults were sharing an environment where family was around more and their experience was less differentiated from that of other young people constrained by lockdown.

This provides some encouragement that while the economic impacts may have long-term consequences, the social shifts may not be so detrimental to those in cohorts now facing disrupted transitions into adulthood. The next wave of data will enable analysis of whether these more encouraging findings persist.

Related question: How is coronavirus affecting the mental health of adolescents?

What are the implications of these findings?

Children with special educational needs and disabilities constitute a group that is particularly vulnerable to the sweeping changes that have accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic, in particular the closure of schools, the cutbacks on additional support services and the impact on social services provision.

Despite the establishment in May 2020 of a specific £10 million fund to support families of children with SEN, and examples of good practice in delivering support (for example, CDC, 2020), the evidence suggests that this is a group of children and families that has been particularly hard hit by school and service closures and provision for children at risk. Ensuring that local authorities have adequate resources to provide services for these children (Public Accounts Committee, 2020) is going to be more important following the current disruption to their education and support in the coming school year.

For those who have left school, there remain continuing consequences of having had special educational needs or disabilities. The findings on food bank use points to the higher levels of hardship among those who had SEN in childhood.

This is likely to stem partly from the fact that those with special educational needs are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds in the first place; but their own lack of resources as evidenced in lower employment rates will tend to exacerbate this situation. This indicates the importance of adequate safety nets in general and specific support for disabled adults who cannot access work (and their families).

With continuation in education being less of an option for those who had special educational needs in school, enabling alternative pathways, including more apprenticeship routes, is likely to be particularly valuable to those in their late teens and early twenties.

We know that the scarring effects of unemployment, including job loss brought on by recessions, affect the subsequent employment opportunities for young people (Bell et al, 2020). This current evidence on the experience of young adults raises concerns about the long-term futures of those who had special educational needs as children and who already faced more limited post-16 opportunities than their counterparts. Targeted employment support is likely to be vital if they are not to be set on a trajectory of limited or no employment.

Where can I find out more?

  • Disabled Children’s Partnership: This coalition of organisations campaigning for improved health and social care for disabled children provides a detailed summary of the findings from their study of over 4,000 parents of disabled children, which can be accessed here.
  • Council for Disabled Children: This organisation has curated a set of resources and information for parents of disabled children, which can be found here.
  • Scope: This organisation, which campaigns for equality for disabled people, provides some guidance for parents with children with additional needs here.
  • NSPCC: This children’s charity, which aims to prevent child abuse, work with children and support families, has put together a range of resources to support parents of children with SEN during the pandemic, which can be found here.
  • Unicef: This United Nations agency studies the experience of disabled children worldwide and has produced some detailed reports on their experience. Their brief account of issues and set of resources related to Covid-19 and children with disabilities can be found here.
  • UCL Centre for Inclusive Education: This institution carries out a range of research, training and knowledge exchange relating to the education of children with special educational needs and disabilities.
  • In this EHRC blog, Liz Sayce identifies the key elements of inclusive education.

Who are experts on this question?

Authors: Sam Parsons, UCL and Lucinda Platt, LSE
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