BLOG: Setting a vision for the future role of special schools

Since the SEND Reforms of 2014, the number of children identified as having a Special Educational Need or Disability (SEND) has increased, with rapid increases in recent years. For the most recent statistics (relating to the 2022-23 school year) the number of children with Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) increased by 9.5% in one year. Over half of children with EHCPs are educated in mainstream schools, although there have been steady increases in the number of children attending special schools. In particular, there has been growth in the percentage of children with EHCPs attending independent special schools – from 5.3% in 2015 to 7.4% in 2023.

The Government’s plans for SEND

Just over a year ago, the Government published its long-awaited SEND and AP Improvement Plan. This set out plans to address a series of problems identified by Government and, specifically, the huge rise in spending on SEND without clear evidence of this having had significant impact. Depending on who you listen to, this is the fault of local authorities, mainstream schools, independent schools or parents, all of whom apparently either expect too much and do too little! The suggested solutions? To ‘crack down’ on over-spending, educate more children in mainstream and, for good measure, improve parental ‘confidence’. The implied message is that the number of children in special schools is a problem and a symptom of problems elsewhere in the system. In December 2023, Newton Europe reported on interim findings of phase one of the Delivering Better Value in SEND. They concluded that over 50% of students placed in special schools ‘didn’t need to be there’. This narrative is increasingly common – that placements in special schools are somehow a systemic failure and not a positive option for the children who attend them.

What is the future role for special schools?

In the apparent haste to reduce numbers in special schools (‘organically’ of course – no-one is overly suggesting children in placements currently should be moved) there has been almost nothing written about the role of special schools – either now or into the future. In fact, at a policy level, we have to go all the way back to 2003’s Special Schools Working Group Report for the last time Government gave serious though to the role of special schools within the wider education system. Despite being over 20 years old, the report is still worth a read. It’s striking that what we saw as key issues and actions 21 years ago would be just as relevant today. I worked on the report as an official at DfE and whilst I’d like to say it was a report ahead of its time, I think the truth is probably rather more depressing! The vision set out for special schools includes special schools forming close partnerships with mainstream schools and acting as the ‘research and development labs’ for SEND, creating and sharing new knowledge and pedagogy – all eminently sensible stuff. If we have known this for over 20 years, the obvious question is why have we been unable to realise this vision in practice?

There are many excellent examples of special schools and mainstream schools working well together. However, in general, these are the result of determined people, working together in spite of the system, rather than with its support and facilitation. For example, there’s no dedicated funding source to support outreach between schools and, consequently, most special schools lack the capacity to work beyond their school gates beyond relatively short-term projects.

Grant funding is enabling the SPECIAL PARTNERSHIP TRUST – a group of 16 schools and resource bases working in the South West – to provide SEND advice and support across Cornwall. The trust will be able to release staff to provide hands-on support to their mainstream colleagues – something that typically can only happen with a dedicated funding source.

However, in the absence of a national vision for special schools, it is likely that such projects will not be replicated widely or consistently. It is difficult to see the vision for increased capacity in mainstream schools being realised without the active involvement of special schools. We desperately need Government to undertake a strategic review of special schools and set a bold new vision that can highlight the role that schools play for the children who attend them and the wider SEND system. This is what we will be asking of a future government.

We will be asking the future government, post general election, to undertake a strategic review of special schools and set a bold new vision that can highlight the role that schools play for the children who attend them and the wider SEND system.

The value of SEND Provision

In 2023, NASS commissioned Sonnet Advisory & Impact CIC to carry out a study to explore the value of SEND Provision. Their Reaching My Potential report indicated that meeting a child’s special educational needs returns social and financial value to individuals, families and the public purse. Moreover, it highlighted the elements of provision which make the biggest difference – good relationships between children, families and schools and consistent professional support for mental health and wellbeing. We have solid evidence of the value special schools provide to those who attend them – contrary to the rhetoric of placements happening either as a result of parental pressure or the lure of the ‘glossy brochure’ from independent schools.

But we can also use this to think about how we replicate those sorts of findings in mainstream schools. We have to go further than special schools offering training to mainstream schools., which is too often where we start and finish. Whilst this has value, it’s not enough in itself to embed complex skills and cultures. The MAT model has given us the possibility of ‘hub and spoke’ approaches where the special school within a mainstream MAT acts as a satellite for good practice across all the schools. Similarly, MATs made up of special schools bring considerable potential expertise to a region – as the Special Partnership Trust highlights. We could do more to recreate such models with different types of schools and remove barriers to independent schools forming partnerships with state-funded schools.

Innovations in SEND

In 2021, NASS worked with the Young Foundation to run the first SEND-focussed Incubator Programme. Here we supported nine special schools to develop ‘good ideas’ into proposals that could be replicated in other schools and widely scaled-up. You can read about the nine school’s projects here and we collated our knowledge to produce this free guide to innovating in your school. One of the projects – Swalcliffe Park School's ‘Quality of Life Network’ is thriving today, supporting over 40 special and mainstream schools to deliver curriculum and support that generates a whole school culture of wellbeing.

We’d love to see the Government commit to a national SEND Innovation Fund to upscale this work. Alongside a dedicated policy review of our aspirations for special schools, this would give us a real chance of properly valuing special schools in their own right and unleashing some of that ‘special’ to make a real difference to all children with SEND.


The NASS Manifesto will launch at the end of April, setting out key actions for any incoming government to take to remove barriers to a better SEND system.

If you are interested in finding out more about our manifesto or would like to support our work to bring about positive change, please do get in touch –