Thousands of children with special educational needs were only offered support after they were excluded from school, the BBC has learned.
A Freedom of Information request found that since 2017, more than 1,300 children were granted an education and healthcare plan (EHCP) after exclusion.
An EHCP legally obliges local authorities and healthcare providers to meet a child’s needs.
The Department for Education said it was due to increase funding.
It said it would increase its spending for children with special educational needs (SEND) by £1.5bn over the next two years.
According to government data from 2019, 14.9% of all pupils in England have SEND, and of those 3.1% have EHCPs.
The information request, responded to by 73 (48% ) of councils in England, revealed that more than a quarter of SEND pupils were issued with an EHCP only after exclusion.
Coventry City Council granted EHCPs to more than 40% of its permanently excluded SEND pupils.
It said the data highlighted that a student’s “level of need is not fully identified… prior to their exclusion”.
An EHCP is often seen as the only way of accessing the support a child needs.
It outlines the needs of each individual, which can include access to therapies or admissions to specialist schools.
But many applications are initially turned down and only issued on appeal – a process that can take months or even years.
Emily Child, who has autism, was granted an ECHP after her mother appealed against the council’s decision not to grant one.
By this point, Emily, who was 13, had experienced multiple suspensions and had been transferred from her mainstream school to a pupil referral unit.
Emily, now 21, says that at the time she was known to mental health services, and had started taking blades into school to self-harm.
“I think my school tried their best, but with the resources they had they could only do so much,” she says. “Instead of there being support, I was just put in isolation on my own.”
A lack of funding and resources has stalled the provision for other pupils too.
‘Why haven’t I got any friends?’
Isaac, aged 10, who has autism and ADHD, has received no education for 13 months despite having an EHCP.
His last school placement broke down after his mum, Sarah, was told it was unable to meet his needs, and his new school says it needs more funding before it can support him.
“We’ve had very little contact from anyone,” Sarah said. “He keeps saying: ‘Why haven’t I got any friends?'”
Marijke Miles, chair of the National Association of Head Teachers’ SEND Council, said the figures revealed a “stretched” system.
“An exclusion is an incredibly distressing situation for everybody, and we would hope that in an effective system a comprehensive EHCP would prevent that situation.”
She said many schools wanted to support their pupils, but “blockers” – such as a lack of training and access to assessment services – meant children could fall through the gaps.
But, she added, EHCPs were not a silver bullet.
“There’s a rising need for specialist provision and a reduced capacity for schools to meet those needs.”
The amount spent on tribunals, triggered by guardians unhappy with the support offered, has also become a concern.
Robert Halfon MP, chairman of the House of Commons Education Select Committee said: “Local authorities spend £90m-plus a year on tribunals for children with SEND and mostly lose those tribunals.
“That’s money that could be spent on the front line.”
The Local Government Association, which represents councils in England, said tribunals were “a last resort” and “do not take into account a council’s finite resources to support children with SEND”.
The Department for Education said its SEND review, due out in 2021, would improve how young people with additional needs were supported.
Once Emily was granted her EHCP, she remained out of education for a year until she was found a suitable placement.
Now she is campaigning to improve the education system for vulnerable pupils.
“I just want to make sure the system changes, because my experience is not unique.
“My motto is change the system, not the person.”