Nobody would argue against the additional £250 million granted to councils this week to relieve budget pressures in High Needs funding. This funding has traditionally paid for additional classroom support for children with complex Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND), but has long been buckling under the strain of demand. The new cash is in addition to a further £100 million for more specialist places in mainstream schools, colleges and special schools, and to improve specialist facilities and equipment. However, having spoken to a number of children’s services leaders across the sector this week, it’s clear to me that this is seen as yet another short-term funding solution to a system failure brought on by a series of failed central government policies.
Parents or carers of a child with special educational needs are no different from any other parent: they want the very best education and start in life for their child(ren). But a combination of heightened demand, flawed and inadequate funding, and perverse educational performance measures has resulted in a system that is working for nobody right now.
Local authorities have had to be creative over the last few years to plug the huge SEND funding gaps. While any new monies are always going to be welcome in the current climate, in reality the sums on offer do not come anywhere near to addressing the £472 million deficit that councils are facing providing SEND support this year. Furthermore, as the LGA have flagged, this could grow to more than £800 million in 2019/20.
On the back of the Budget, some councils view this recent funding injection as another small sign that the concerns being raised by the sector about demand and sustainable funding are starting to be heard; others are adopting a somewhat more pessimistic view that it equates to nothing more than scraps from HM Treasury in the run up to the spending review negotiations, and a potential post-Brexit financial crisis.
It is clear that the SEND reforms have failed. The costs of change, complexities within the system and policy consequences were all underestimated. The reforms were meant to deliver a system that provided parents and children with a stronger voice, a focus on long-term outcomes, greater collaboration between local partners, and a Local Offer that added value to those trying to navigate the system. We have never been further away from achieving this.
Our recent work with a number of councils has highlighted that:
- Children with SEND account for half of all permanent exclusions despite representing only 14% of the school population. In addition to this, over three quarters of the children in pupil referral units have SEND. It is vital that mainstream schools are incentivised to admit and support children with SEND.
- Spend has remained focused on children who receive statutory assessments. This has led to perverse incentives for children to get an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) to unlock associated funding and support. Consequently, the number of children and young people with an EHCP has increased by at least 35 per cent in the last five years.
- There is limited focus on managing demand through earlier intervention: This has led to a lack of confidence in mainstream schools in supporting children with additional needs, and therefore a further push for children with an EHCP to attend special schools. An earlier and better understanding of children’s needs, would enable more early intervention and link schools and SEND into broader Early Help systems. Aligned to this, the number of pupils identified as needing SEN Support (formerly School Action and School Action Plus) has steadily fallen – this reflects an underestimation of needs, the consequence of which is that some pupils are not benefiting from SEN support early with needs escalating and pupils disengaging from education.
- The system is becoming more adversarial. The inevitable focus that councils have had to put on converting statements to EHCPs has hampered integration efforts, and reduced the time staff have had to engage with families. Relationships between councils, schools, and health colleagues are increasingly strained.
These challenges are significant, and although we welcome the news of a new advisory SEND System Leadership Board, this needs to be driven by local government if we are to avoid the mistakes of our recent past, and build a compelling case for earlier intervention across the system. This must ensure the involvement of schools, children and parents in setting out a new and inclusive ambition for SEND. By switching the ownership of the issue, it will provide a catalyst for the necessary cultural change, and position central government in a key enabling role of communicating and sharing best practice. It’s time to revisit the original intentions of the SEND reforms, and to get back to providing the services that our children and families deserve.