As highlighted in the Observer yesterday (‘Devastating’ cuts hit special educational needs), authorities across the country are facing overspends on children’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) budgets with some moving to make cuts as a result. Overspends are expected to exceed £200 million this year, significantly higher than the £139.5 million reported by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) for 2016/17.
SEND support has now become the critical pressure point for many of the councils we are working with, overtaking the challenges posed by the rise in numbers of looked after children. Increases in demand for SEND services have challenged the supply of provision locally, resulting in more children in out of area placements, or moving from mainstream schools to special schools at higher cost.
But providing more funding isn’t the only answer.
An additional £1 billion of extra funding has already put into High Needs Block funding (HNB) since 2013 – and yet most authorities are still at breaking point. Part of the reason is due to two very positive developments – children with complex needs are now living for longer than they did before due to improvements in health care, and councils now support children with SEND until they are 25. But the current crisis is not only related to the challenges posed by rising demand and insufficient funding.
Cultural issues across the SEND system, and a lack of focus on early intervention are fundamental problems too. Challenges facing the sector include:
- SEND reforms are failing – they were designed to create more integrated support for children with SEND, and reduce the numbers having to be educated in special schools. This simply hasn’t happened, with less children on SEND support and more progressing to statutory assessment
- Spend has remained focused on children who receive statutory assessment – which leads to perverse incentives for children to get an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) to unlock funding and associated support
- Limited focus on early intervention – leading 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 (numbers have risen year on year)
- Integration remains a myth – the focus has needed to be on meeting transfer deadlines, rather than creating a properly integrated system. Mapping the processes of a number of different councils has shown us that children can still have 6, 8 or even 10 or more different assessments and plans
- The system is becoming more complex and adversarial – the inevitable focus local authorities have had to put on transferring documents from one form (a statement) to another (an EHCP) has reduced the time they have to engage with families
- Outcomes aren’t improving – or at least not according to the way they are measured nationally, which shows that children with SEND faced a 63% gap in Key Stage 2 outcomes in 2017. Either we are measuring the wrong things, or there is a fundamental problem in the way we currently offer support.
- The rise in demand is not sustainable – we have to refocus the system to have an earlier and better understanding of children’s needs, provide more early intervention and link schools and SEND into broader early help systems
Having recently spent a year wrestling with these problems as a Deputy Director of Education, I know well myself that there are no quick fixes. It is true that the funding formula from government is complex and unclear, which makes it difficult to accurately forecast budgets. The fragmentation of the education system has also made it harder to influence schools in a local area, with data on exclusions and rising numbers of children being electively home-educated painting a worrying picture in many areas of potential ‘off-rolling’.
But I believe that those in the sector also need to reframe the problem, looking in more detail at current demand in the system to help build the case and evidence for earlier intervention. They need to include schools, children and parents in setting out a new and inclusive ambition from this analysis. In my experience, local authorities have good data on social care but too few have completed an in-depth analysis of the demand they face in SEND, or mapped trajectories to help them forecast need, pressures and interventions in this area. This is a key first step in helping to stem rising demand by meeting need earlier.
The Department for Education should also do more to support SEND provision by enabling increased sharing of best practice. In particular, they need to encourage the initiatives that help to support schools to meet children’s needs earlier. I feel strongly that they should also refocus the innovation fund on SEND, to give local authorities the ability to demonstrate reductions in escalating need by innovating in mainstream schools, pre-schools and with parents. Re-balancing the system doesn’t happen overnight, and where investment is needed this should be as a catalyst for increasing earlier intervention support.
As Directors of Children’s Services and their lead members set off for the National Children’s and Adults Services Conference (NCASC) this week, it will be interesting to hear how much of this is on the agenda and how broad the debate goes.
I would love to hear your views on the above – either by leaving a comment below, via email or at NCASC – find me on the iMPOWER booth (C30).