A postcode lottery of SEND provision? Analysing and explaining variability in the education of children with SEND since the Children and Families Act

Lead Research Organisation: Loughborough University
Department Name: Criminology, Sociology and Social Policy


Despite education reforms, children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) in England continue to experience multiple disadvantages in education. They have higher rates of absence and risk of permanent and fixed school exclusions (Graham et al. 2019; DfE, 2016) and often perform worse than their peers in educational attainments from the early years to post-16 education (DfE, 2021). These inequalities are associated with negative outcomes later in life disproportionally affecting children with SEND including ill health, unemployment, and imprisonment (O'Brien, 2016).

The 2014 Children and Families Act (2014CFA) currently regulates the provision of education for children with SEND in England. Largely inspired by the vision of the Warnock Committee (Dept. for Education & Science, 1978), this policy presumes that most children with SEND should be educated in mainstream schools. The Act places new responsibilities on Local Authorities (LA) around the early identification of SEND, the co-production of policies with families, and the integration of services (2014CFA). Placing the responsibilities for enacting the legislation with LAs opens possibilities for divergent practice, experiences and outcomes at the LA level - a postcode lottery, as identified in policy reports (House of Commons, 2020) and our pilot study (Azpitarte and Holt, 2022).

This project will investigate recent trends and spatial disparities within and between LAs in school provision and educational outcomes of children with SEND. Geography is central to the evaluation of SEND policies as LAs in England have a central role in SEND provision including key statuary responsibilities throughout the SEND process. Evidence from Ofsted inspections suggests a postcode lottery with many LAs failing to meet the needs of children with SEND (Ofsted, 2021). The purpose of this research is to gain insights into extent, drivers, and implications of the postcode lottery for children's education.

There is a lack of systematic research about the spatial differences in SEND provision and outcomes. The project will address the evidence gap in three ways. First, it will map out spatial disparities in inclusion and school segregation within and between LAs of children with SEND looking at school arrangements at different stages of their education. Consistent with trends towards the marketisation of education, recent years have seen an increasing academisation of the school sector and a rise in the proportion of children with SEND attending special schools. As shown in Black et al. (2019), the academisation of schools in England has been far from uniform across space which may have important implications for education of children with SEND.

Secondly, the project will study spatial disparities in the educational attainments of children with SEND throughout their compulsory education. Despite the focus on outcomes in the 2014CFA, little is known yet about its consequences for children's outcomes. The project will fill that gap by investigating spatial variability in assessment participation, educational attainment, and school exclusion of children with SEND looking at variation at the pupil, school, and LA levels.

The project will improve our understanding of the drivers of the postcode lottery in SEND provision and outcomes by evaluating the influence of pupil, school, and LA level demographic and socioeconomic characteristics in explaining the variability between schools within LAs, and between LAs. The project will evaluate the extent of the postcode lottery by looking at how the effect of characteristics such as the primary needs of children and SEND support varies between schools and LAs. This will allow us to discern the extent to which variation at different levels can be explained by differences in characteristics pointing to the role of variation in LA SEND policies and practice in driving spatial variability in SEND provision and outcomes.


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