NINE in 10 children in St Helens faced long waits for special educational needs support plans last year, new figures show.

Across England, the number of new education, health and care (EHC) plans rose by more than a quarter, but nearly half of all children and young people receiving one experienced prolonged waits before getting it.

The Association of School and College Leaders said failure to match the rising demand with appropriate government investment has brought the special education needs (SEND) system “to the brink of collapse”.

An EHC plan is for children and young people who need more support than is available through conventional special educational needs support. EHC plans identify these needs and set out additional support required to meet them.

Department for Education figures show 248 children and young people aged up to 25 received an EHC plan from St Helens Borough Council in 2023. This was up from the 173 plans issued the year before.

In St Helens, just 11% of all support plans were provided within the time limit.

Nationally, 84,428 new EHC plans started during last year, up by 27% from 2022. However, the figures show just 50% of them were issued within the 20-week time limit – a slight improvement from 49% in 2022.

A St Helens Borough Council spokesperson said: "We understand how important it is for children and young people to get the right support at the right time and we are doing all we can to try and deliver assessments in as timely a manner as we can.

“Over a number of years we've seen a continued growth in demand for EHCPs for young people across the borough, indeed in the last year we have seen our demand rise higher almost twice the national average, on top of the demands that have come in recent years.

“We are continuing to try to find ways to bring the waiting time down including appointing additional staff and working with schools to expand SEND provision.

“We understand the frustration and anxiety delays cause children and their families and we ask parents to work with us as we try to address this issue."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The number of children needing additional support through education and healthcare plans is now at a record high, but many families are still waiting too long for the assessments, and provision that they need.”

He added: “The current system is simply not sustainable.

“The next government must tackle the Send crisis as a priority.”

Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the ASCL, said: “Failure to match rising demand with appropriate government investment has brought the whole Send system to the brink of collapse, with schools being unable to afford the costs of Send provision, a lack of places available in special schools, and local authorities having huge high needs deficits.”

An EHC plan can only be issued after a child or young person has been formally assessed.

Across the country, 138,242 requests for initial assessments were made – 21% more than in the year before. This included 551 in St Helens.

Overall, 1,595 St Helens children had an EHC plan as of January.

Sarah White, head of policy at the disability charity Sense, said: “Mainstream and early years schools are underfunded and ill-equipped to identify and meet the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities and the consequences could be potentially devastating for them.

“We also know many children are not getting the support they require even when they have a plan in place.”

Louise Gittins, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “These record figures are a reminder of the huge pressure councils are under, with the number of EHCPs increasing every year since they were introduced in 2014.

“It is absolutely vital whoever forms the next government brings forward proposals without delay to reform the Send system, with a focus on improving levels of mainstream inclusion, as well as write off councils’ high needs deficits.”