Children with special needs far less likely than their peers to be admitted to reception classes in primary schools where they attended pre-school

10 June 2019

Children with a Statement of Special Educational Needs who attend pre-schools based in primary schools are significantly less likely than their peers to be admitted to the school’s reception class, according to a new Nuffield-funded report from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The research provides the first national quantitative evidence to add to growing anecdotal evidence from parents that some schools are actively discouraging the admission of children with special needs.

Researchers found that 26% of children with a statements move on to other schools compared to 18% of children with no recorded SEND. This means that an already disadvantaged and vulnerable group does not benefit from being able to transition smoothly into reception class with a high continuity of peers.

The report concludes: “One potentially positive reason for this is if children are moving to access better provision for their formal schooling. But disruption can be particularly difficult for some children in this group – and there is also evidence that some schools discourage (more or less explicitly) the attendance and admission to reception of children with complex needs, resulting in them moving to alternative institutions.”

Some ethnic groups are similarly affected: 25% of Black Caribbean children who attend a school nursery move for reception compared to 17% of White British children and 12% of Bangladeshi children. Further research is needed to investigate the reasons for this.

The report recommends that local authorities are given the power and resources to address higher levels of transitions between schools for children with statements and some minority ethnic groups. It concludes: “Recent funding cuts and reforms have reduced authorities’ capacity to take action to understand and address inequalities in early years provision.”

Dr Tammy Campbell, one of the authors of the study, said:

“It’s very possible that continuity of transition for children with special educational needs and disabilities has become even less stable in the most recent years. Funding cuts combined with target-based school accountability measures mean that schools are disincentivised from admitting these pupils. We intend to track changes over recent years in upcoming research.” 

A Select Committee enquiry is currently reviewing the success of 2014 government reforms of the SEND system.
The LSE report examined over half a million children born in the 2006-07 academic year, who became eligible for free early education between January 2010 and September 2010, in nearly 25,000 settings. Other findings and recommendations are:

  • Take-up of the full duration of free early education is much lower among low-income families. Three-year-olds from persistently poor families are twice as likely as higher-income peers not to attend free pre-school from the start of eligibility. Recommendation: The Department for Education must reassess how to ensure good quality early education for all children, with a focus on access for low-income children. This is especially urgent given the new policy of 30 hours funding for children of working parents, which is likely to increase inequality.
  • Where more pre-school places are in Sure Start children’s centres, take-up of pre-school education is higher overall and there is less inequality in take-up between different income groups. Voluntary sector provision is also associated with higher take-up across income groups. Recommendation: Local authorities should be supported to ensure that a minimum share of local provision is available in Sure Start and voluntary sector settings. The government must urgently review funding for Sure Start, given numerous closures due to inadequate resources. It should also review funding mechanisms to better protect the voluntary sector.
  • Summer-born children are slightly less likely than autumn-born children to attend a school nursery, and therefore more likely to move to a different institution for reception, and more likely to enter primary school with no peers known from pre-school. This is of particular concern given summer-born children are known to be at a disadvantage through their educational careers, both in terms of attainment and socially and emotionally. Recommendation: The Department for Education and Local Authorities should consider how to increase access to school nurseries for summer-born children. This may include more active and earlier information and signposting, and reviewing admissions processes with a specific focus on ensuring equal access for all.
  • In 2011, there was very little segregation of low-income children in early education. Only 3% of those from persistently poor families attended preschools with a majority of peers whose families were also persistently poor. On the other hand, compared to primary school, many pre-school settings include no low-income children. Recommendation: Policymakers should continue to monitor levels of mixing. Free early education appears to be working reasonably well to ensure a social mix in many pre-schools, but since our data were collected, the funding context has changed considerably. Widespread closures of voluntary sector and Sure Start providers, and additional fees charged by private sector providers due to funding gaps may have affected intakes.
  • Very little evidence that children’s peer group in early education affects the measured attainment of low-income children in early primary school. Also, no significant associations between the share of a child’s peers who had English as an Additional Language (EAL) and EAL children’s attainment in reception. Recommendation: Researchers and policymakers should continue to investigate peer effects. It may be that the outcome measure used, the Foundation Stage Profile score, is not sufficiently fine-grained to identify effects. 

Lead author, Dr Kitty Stewart, Associate Professor of Social Policy and Associate Director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at LSE, said:

“There are aspects of the way early education policy is currently working that are increasing rather than narrowing inequalities between children. Recent policy reforms, such as the 30 hour policy for children of working parents, alongside a squeeze on funding for services like Sure Start, are likely to be making these inequalities worse. Government urgently needs to review its provision with a sharper focus on ensuring that all children get the best start in life.”