What happened to SEN student well-being during and after the pandemic?

by | Nov 30, 2022

STEER Education had been gathering data on student well-being before the Covid-19 pandemic, and they continued to do so during the outbreak and beyond.  What they found was surprising and contradicted the narrative we heard in the general press about the well-being of students with SEN.  But was it really that strange?

STEER Education analysed data on almost 11,000 students in 52 mainstream state secondaries and found that, despite the pandemic having a very damaging effect on young people’s mental health, there has been a surprise improvement in the well-being of pupils with special needs since the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, an estimated one in five students with special needs could be classed as “at social and emotional risk”. This fell to just under one in six between the end of the pandemic and this July. This means that across the country, the equivalent of more than 8,000 students are no longer “at social and emotional risk”. 

The study counted students with special needs as those with an Education and Health Care Plan – a guarantee of statutory support. 

In sharp contrast, the findings show that the well-being of young people without special needs has dramatically deteriorated in the same period, something the study suggests is the result of the detrimental impact of prolonged school closures.

Before the pandemic, one in six students without special needs could be deemed to be “at social and emotional risk”. As recently as July this year, this rose to almost one in four – the equivalent of nearly 400,000 more students.

The study shows that during lockdown, many thousands of special needs pupils honed skills that make them more able to cope with the emotional ups and downs of life. Many gained confidence in adapting to change, grew more resilient and developed a healthier approach to trusting others, the study found. 

The study’s authors say that while many of these young people may have found the pandemic challenging, the social-emotional skills they have gained will lead to a marked improvement in the wellbeing of special needs pupils. They argue that this is largely the result of the specific approach taken by schools to support these pupils.

Pupils with special needs appeared to greatly benefit from increased teacher-pupil ratios, access to devices for online learning and regular calls from school staff to make sure they were coping as well as possible. The combination of these factors – and others – are likely to have had a strikingly positive effect on their well-being, the study’s authors say.

STEER Education is one of the only organisations in the UK to have pre-pandemic student mental health data, which makes this report one of the most reliable insights into the effect of the pandemic on student mental health.

Here is the link to the full report.


What was the experience in your schools?

STEER would like to know whether their results support or contradict the picture for your school.  You can help them (and future research) by completing the form below.

For me, the Steer education research confirmed my own experiences.  Many students with an EHCP received a more stable experience than their non-SEN peers (we know of some horror stories because they got the media attention), some preferred the less chaotic environment of their own home over school, and a significant number (especially those with autism) enjoyed the anonymity of the online experience.  The results are interesting, but with anecdotal data evidencing that we now have an increase in students who are avoiding or rejecting a school-based experience, it suggests that we didn’t learn from some of those benefits and keep them in place.  Whilst I’d never advocate for a wholly online education and the removal of social contact, for some students, surely some engagement is better than no engagement at all?

Fill in the survey HERE

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