An increase in the number of pupils in special schools has provided evidence of a reversal of a 30-year trend towards inclusion.
The figures have sparked fears that the pressure to raise standards means that mainstream schools are becoming more reluctant to offer places for children with special needs.
Since 2007 there has been an increase of 8,475 in the number of pupils in special schools, reaching 101,590 last year, research shows.
Although the total number of pupils has also risen over this period, the proportion of all pupils in special schools has also gone up, from 0.75 per cent in 2007 to 0.80 per cent last year, an increase of nearly seven per cent over six years.
Brahm Norwich, professor of educational psychology and special educational needs at the University of Exeter, who carried out the analysis on Department for Education statistics, said that the increase was the first sign of a reversal of the trend to reduce places in special schools.
The trend towards inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools had seen the proportion of pupils in special schools steadily fall from around 1.7 per cent in 1982, before levelling off in the early years of this century and then rising from 2007 onwards.
“It is a small increase but it is significant because it is the reversal of a 30-year trend,” said Professor Norwich.
A number of local authorities have embarked on an expansion of special school places, citing the increased survival rate of premature babies as a reason for the growing demand, but Professor Norwich said this was unlikely to be behind the recent rise.
“That is a longer-term trend,” he said. “That has been around for 20 years and was happening even while special school numbers were on the decline.”
Instead, he attributed the increase to a change in the political climate away from inclusion. Schools are coming under greater pressure to raise standards, leaving less room for children with special needs.
“If you are taking on children who are more challenging to teach, they’re not going to contribute to higher progression rates,” he said.
Artemi Sakellariadis, director of the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, which commissioned the analysis, said it highlighted a potentially worrying trend.
“If you want people to become part of society they have got to go to school together,” she said. “My hunch is we will see this figure rising in the future because of the bias against inclusion.”
She said many local authorities claimed more parents were choosing to send their children to special schools, but this had to be seen in the context of mainstream schools becoming increasingly unwilling to take them.
“You can’t ignore the context that more mainstream schools are saying to parents that they can’t meet their needs,” she said. “If you find a closed door everywhere you look that is not really a choice at all.”
Sean Stockdale, spokesman for the National Association of Special Educational Needs, said the new SEN code of practice, to be introduced from September, supported both inclusion and listening to the wishes of parents.
“We need to ensure that the drive to raise standards doesn’t become an informal system where parents are nudged towards special schools and headteachers are disincentivised to take children who could be included but could go against their efforts to improve results,” he said.
“We have freedom of choice, but we need to have enough checks and balances so it doesn’t become a downgraded service.”