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Exclusive: Disabled children from Sheffield are being educated as far as 165 miles away

Data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism demonstrates that disabled children from the city are spread far and wide in schools across the country, while children from Sussex and London are being educated here.

Child writing

Stresses in special education provision across the country are forcing disabled children to be educated far from their family home in order to receive the support they need. 43,000 “special needs” and disabled children in England are placed in schools outside of their home area, with 3,300 in settings that are an estimated 20 miles or more away from where they live.

Now Then has partnered with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose data found that children from Sheffield are being sent to schools as far away as West Berkshire and Peterborough, while there are children attending school in Sheffield whose homes are as far away as East Sussex, Redbridge and Ealing.

An EHC plan is a document that summarises a disabled child’s needs, the provision required to meet those needs, and long-term outcomes to be achieved. Of the 3,946 pupils in Sheffield with an EHC plan, 5.4% have been placed in schools outside of the city by the council and 12 pupils are travelling over 20 miles to get their education. And while many children are placed in areas like Barnsley, Doncaster and Derbyshire, some are facing journeys to West Berkshire (164.8 miles), Stoke-on-Trent (49.5 miles), Peterborough (90.5 miles), and Lancashire (51.4 miles).At the same time, children with “special educational needs” are being educated in Sheffield from home councils elsewhere. Pupils are travelling to Sheffield from East Sussex (216.8 miles), Hertfordshire (134 miles), Redbridge (173.4 miles), Hillingdon (160.2 miles) and Ealing (160.7 miles), all in London,

School desk

Overall, disabled pupils from Sheffield are travelling an average of 7.2 miles for their education and pupils from elsewhere are travelling an average of 8.5 miles to be educated in the city; UK government statistics show that the average primary school pupil in the UK travels 1.6 miles to school, while secondary school pupils travel an average of 3.4 miles.

Sheffield City Council told Now Then that most disabled children who are placed in schools away from the city are in neighbouring authorities.

A parent may choose a school in Rotherham or Barnsley as it is close to their home. This will apply to most of the cases detailed. Where the child still lives in Sheffield, Sheffield City Council continue to manage their EHC Plan.

In total, 214 children with “special educational needs” from Sheffield have been placed in schools in different local authorities and 112 children have been placed in schools in Sheffield from a different local authority. This begs the question: why are those pupils travelling when the pupils travelling from, say, Rotherham to Sheffield and the pupils travelling from Sheffield to Rotherham could arguably switch places?

Now Then asked Sheffield City Council this question, who responded, saying that:

  • Children require stability in their education. Sheffield City Council would not move a child’s education unless there is a reason for change that is related to the child’s needs
  • SEND legislation focuses on parental preference. A parent can choose a school in a neighbouring local authority if they wish. Where parents do this, we are required to provide this place unless it was either unsuitable to the child’s needs or an inefficient use of resources
  • Some children require highly specialist provision that is not available in every local area. In these cases, Sheffield City Council must carefully consider where children are placed to ensure that the provision meets the child’s needs

The council also explained that care provision can be another reason children are placed in schools away from the city:

There are children in the care system who may be placed across the country. This is always a last resort for Sheffield City Council as we seek to keep children in Sheffield wherever possible, but sometimes the very specialist provision they need is not available locally. If a child is placed in a care placement with education also provided (e.g. a residential school) then Sheffield City Council continue to manage the child’s EHC Plan and so they would be recorded as being a Sheffield child with an EHC Plan in a school quite some distance away. This will explain why data is identifying children placed in areas such as Peterborough etc. If the child is in a care placement but are at a separate school, then Sheffield City Council pass the EHC Plan to the local authority where they are now living for them to manage (under the ‘Belongings regulations’) but Sheffield City Council remain financially responsible for the provision.

Stability in a child’s education, as well as provision that precisely suits a child’s needs, are vital, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism data provides a worrying picture of disabled children travelling far more than their non-disabled counterparts to go to school. As long as this remains the case, it can be disruptive and isolating and presents an unfair burden for many children and their families.

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