A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has found that the government’s approach to funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is ‘not sustainable’. The report, Support for pupils with special educational needs in England also called on the government to act urgently to determine if the current system is affordable.

The government substantially changed the system for supporting children and young people with SEND in September 2014, under the Children and Families Act 2014. The aims of the reforms were for: children’s needs to be identified earlier; families to be more involved in decisions affecting them; education, health and social care services to be better integrated; and support to remain in place up to the age of 25 where appropriate. 

The NAO found that since the reforms the number of pupils identified as having high needs defined as those in special schools and those with education, health and care plans (EHC plans) in mainstream schools, has risen dramatically – by 10 per cent between 2013/14 and 2017/18. Over the same period funding per pupil dropped by 2.6 per cent in real terms for those with high needs, and also decreased for those without EHC plans.

The report also finds that local authorities are increasingly overspending their budgets for children with high needs. Just over 81 per cent of councils overspent in 2017/18, compared to just over 47 per cent in 2013/14. The NAO identify this trend as being driven by a 20 per cent increase in the number of pupils attending special schools rather than being in mainstream education. Ringfenced school reserves have dropped by 86.5 per cent in the last four years as local authorities use them to make up the funding shortfall, and the NAO point out that this is unsustainable.

The NAO say that stakeholders have raised concerns with them that the system incentivises mainstream schools to be less inclusive, as they are expected to cover the first £6000 of support for a child with SEND from existing budgets. Pupils with SEND, especially those who do not have an EHC plan, are more likely to be permanently excluded from school than those without SEND. Additionally, short Ofsted inspections of schools rated ‘good’ don’t routinely comment on SEND provision, so weaknesses may not be picked up.

Flaws in the funding system may have been missed as the DfE ‘did not fully assess the likely financial consequences’ of the 2014 reforms, the report says. The DfE tested elements of the changes with ‘pathfinder’ local authorities, but did not quantify or validate many of their assumptions about cost savings before implementation. For example, the DfE expected fewer challenges to local authorities’ decisions about support, and resolution via mediation. In practice, the number of cases being taken to tribunal increased by 80.5 per cent, from 3,147 in 2014/15 to 5,679 in 2017/18.

The report recommends that the DfE should ‘assess how much it would cost to provide the system for supporting pupils with SEND created by the 2014 reforms and use this to determine whether it is affordable.’ The NAO also say that the DfE need ‘better measures’ of how effective SEND support is in preparing pupils for their adult lives, and that changes to funding and accountability arrangements should be made to ‘encourage and support’ mainstream schools to be more inclusive. On September 6th, after the report’s completion but before it’s publication, the government announced a review into SEND funding.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO commented, ‘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. I therefore welcome the DfE’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.’

Full report available at: https://tinyurl.com/y2q3onvo

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