System supporting children with special educational needs is ‘not financially stable’

Olivia Rook
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) shows that cost pressures and a reluctance to support SEND pupils in mainstream education are placing a burden on local authorities.

Pupils with SEND are more likely to be permanently excluded from school, with this group accounting for nearly 45 per cent of permanent exclusions in 2017/18.
Pupils with SEND are more likely to be permanently excluded from school, with this group accounting for nearly 45 per cent of permanent exclusions in 2017/18.

Local authorities are struggling to provide adequate care to children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), according to a new report.

The NAO report shows that while the number of pupils identified as having the greatest needs rose by 10 per cent between 2013/14 and 2017/18, in the same period, funding per pupil dropped by 2.6 per cent in real terms for those with high needs.

Local authorities are increasingly overspending their budget to support children with SEND. In 2017/18, over 80 per cent of councils overspent, compared with just under half in 2013/14. There has been a 20 per cent increase in the number of pupils attending special schools instead of mainstream education, and local authorities have sharply increased the amount they spend on independent special schools. This is due, in some cases, to a lack of appropriate provision at state special schools.

In response to the overspending, local authorities are transferring money from their mainstream school budgets in order to support pupils with high needs, which is not a sustainable solution.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: ‘Access to the right support is crucial to the happiness and life chances of the 1.3 million pupils with SEND in England. While lots of schools, both special and mainstream, are providing high-quality education for pupils with SEND, it is clear that many children’s needs are not being met.’

Stakeholders in the sector have suggested the increase in children attending special schools is due to a system that incentivises mainstream primary and secondary schools to be less inclusive. Cost pressures are one factor, as mainstream schools are expected to cover the first £6,000 of support for a child with SEND from existing budgets.

A survey from the Early Years Alliance, in partnership with the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted, found that a third of the 1,261 practitioners surveyed believed applying for SEND funding was burdensome.

Schools with high numbers of SEND pupils may also appear to be performing less well against performance metrics, contributing to this reluctance to take on children with SEND in mainstream settings.  

Pupils with SEND are also more likely to be permanently excluded from school, with this group accounting for nearly 45 per cent of permanent exclusions in 2017/18. The evidence also suggests pupils with SEND are more likely to experience off rolling – where schools encourage parents to remove children largely for the school’s benefit – than other pupils.

A further issue is that short Ofsted inspections of ‘good’ mainstream schools are not designed to routinely comment on SEND provision, so it is hard to maintain thorough quality checks.

The 2014 SEND reforms
The report has raised questions about consistency of support across the country as there are substantial unexplained variations between areas. This is something that will be investigated in a new Government review of the 2014 SEND reforms. The NAO recommends the DfE should assess how much it would cost to provide the system for supporting pupils with SEND created by the 2014 reforms to determine whether it is even affordable.

Mr Davies added: ‘I welcome the Department for Education’s announcement last week of a review into support for children with SEND, following our engagement with them on this issue over recent months. We hope the review will secure the improvements in quality and sustainability that are needed.’

Meg Hillier, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, commented: ‘It is vital that children with special educational needs and disabilities have the support they need at school for them to achieve their ambitions and lead fulfilling lives.

‘Yet there are significant concerns that many pupils are not being supported effectively and the NAO’s report finds that based on current trends, the system is not financially sustainable. 

‘The Government must urgently review whether the current system is affordable and ensure that every child receives the support they deserve.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said: ‘Helping all children and young people reach their potential is one of the core aims of this Government, including those with special educational needs. That is why the Prime Minister has committed to providing an extra £700 million next year to make sure these children get an education that helps them develop and thrive as adults.

‘We have improved special educational needs support to put families at the heart of the system and give them better choice in their children's education, whether in mainstream or special school. Last week we launched a review of these reforms, to make sure every child, everywhere, gets an education that prepares them for success.’

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