Coronavirus: Impact on special educational needs in England

This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication (15.04.20).

Schools in England remain open for the children of key workers and children who are most vulnerable. ‘Vulnerable children’  includes those with complex special educational needs (SEN). 

This Insight examines the impact of school closures on the education of children and young people in England with SEN.  

Closure of schools and other providers 

On 18 March, Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson announced that schools, early years providers, sixth forms and further education colleges would close until further notice.  

This was an extension of the Government’s measures to restrain the coronavirus outbreak. An exception was made for the children of key workers (such as NHS staff) and vulnerable children.  

Here we refer to schools and school-age children, but the principles apply to children and young people in other settings, such as nurseries, sixth forms, or further education colleges. 

The Coronavirus Act 2020 

The Coronavirus Act 2020 gives the Secretary of State powers to direct educational providers to temporarily remain open, or to close.  

The Act also gives the Secretary of State powers to issue a notice to temporarily disapply certain educational requirements, which are usually required by law. 

This includes requirements on local authorities to secure education and health care provision under an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) for those who need more support. If a notice is made, the duty is still fulfilled if authorities have made ‘reasonable endeavours’ to fulfil these requirements. 

Do schools have to close? 

Most schools and other educational providers are not ‘closed’. However, most children should not be attending. As a broad rule, if it’s possible for children to be looked after at home, they should not go school. 

The children of key workers may attend school. Vulnerable children, such as those with an EHCP, are also permitted to attend.  

Schools should aim to stay open to support these children. The Government recognises this will not be possible in every case. Local authorities and schools should work together to support children whose schools have been closed. 

Should all children with SEN go to school? 

No. Most children with SEN do not have an EHCP. Where possible, these children should be looked after at home in the same manner as other children. 

Should all children with an EHCP go to school? 

No. While there are over 270,000 pupils in English schools with EHCPs or ‘SEN statements’, far from all of these will be attending school.  

The Government describes two broad categories of children with EHCPs. These cases should be approached differently during the pandemic. 

  1. Children and young people whose needs can be met at home. For example, those children who are not receiving personal care from their educational setting, or whose limited need for personal care can be met in their home. 
  2. Children and young people who would be at significant risk if their education, health and care provision and placement did not continue. These children cannot safely be supported at home. 

Schools need to consider the needs of each individual to decide whether a particular child should attend school. The school should consider the views of their parents, and conduct a risk assessment. 

Should special schools remain open? 

Like other schools, special schools may remain open. This will not be possible in every case. Local authorities and schools, working with parents, should work out how best to support each child. 

Are residential special schools remaining open? 

If possible, residential special schools should remain open. The Department for Education has published specific guidance on isolation for these schools. It notes that where necessary, the school should work with the local authority to draft in staff from other educational settings rather than close. 

What legal responsibilities do councils now have regarding children and young people with SEN? 

Usually, there is a legal requirement on local authorities to secure the provision set down for a child or young person in their EHCPs.  

The Coronavirus Act allows for local authorities to instead use ‘reasonable endeavours’ to meet the requirements set out in EHCPs, if the Secretary of State makes a temporary notice to that effect. 

This may mean that some of the support children receive is altered. Educational services may be affected by staff shortages, school closures, or other limitations.  

Any changes would only be temporary. They would expire when the Secretary of State’s notice expires. The notices can’t last longer than a month, although successive notices could be made. 

In a letter to children, young people and parents, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, Vicky Ford, said further changes may follow. In particular, she said regulations might be needed to amend the timescales for EHCP processes. This could include making decisions about support. 

Will there be ongoing support for home-educated children? 

Where a home-educated child is receiving support from the local authority via an EHCP, this will usually continue. 

That is unless it’s affected by any temporary notice relaxing the requirements on local authorities to support children.  

Similar to children in school, local authorities will be expected to use ‘reasonable endeavours’ to provide the support set out in the plan, rather than being legally obligated to do so. 

Further reading 

Special Educational Needs: support in EnglandHouse of Commons Library.  


About the author: Robert Long is a researcher in the House of Commons Library, specialising in education.  


Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash