Is a generation of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities being short-changed?

31 Dec

A report by the Education Select Committee heavily criticised the government’s approach to the provision it makes for children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND). Members of the committee agreed with the government’s approach for the SEND reforms of 2014. However, the committee criticised the implementation of these reforms claiming that they were hampered by “poor administration and a challenging funding environment” leading to a “bureaucratic nightmare” for parents.

The Select Committee made a series of recommendations to improve the central administration of SEND provision. These include the following.

  • The health and education government departments should collaborate more to develop “mutually beneficial options for cost and burden-sharing” and prevent opportunities to “pass the buck”.
  • The government should increase the power of the local authorities (LAs) and the social care ombudsman to examine school and academy provision.
  • Provision should be made to bring together special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) in local areas to share best practice, knowledge and training.
  • The Department for Education (DfE) policy should change to allow LAs to open special schools.
  • A system should be set up for parents and schools/academies to report LAs that are acting unlawfully to the DfE.

The government announced an extra £700 million for SEND funding in the coming years.  But this falls short of the £1.5 billion that the National Governors’ Associated requested as part of its Funding the Future campaign. The NGA’s School Governance 2019 annual survey found funding and SEND provision to be the top two issues for governors.

Meanwhile, an investigation carried out by The Times on the future sustainability of the special education needs and/or disabilities (SEND) system and how local authorities (LAs) respond to overspending on pupils with high-needs budget brought the issue into sharp focus.

These findings were in line with a report from the National Audit Office (NAO), which concluded that, although the government had increased funding for SEND pupils, it did not keep pace with the number of pupils with high needs.

There are 354,000 children and young people with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) – up from 250,000 children with special needs statements under the old system. Another one million school children who have special needs do not qualify for higher support.

In the early autumn of 2019, The Times sent Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to 143 English councils.  Their response revealed that 82 tried to move money from schools’ budgets to their special needs block last year, with £75.1 million diverted from mainstream schools. Over four years the total sum was £394.1 million.

The government allocates £39 billion for schools and £6 billion for special needs funding.  The law limits the amount councils can move to 0.5% without approval from ministers.  However, councils need and want more flexibility.  Their overspending reached £944.3 million over four years.

In the meantime, an increasing number of headteachers object to money being moved, saying that their school/academy budgets were already under pressure.  Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said that children were being “short-changed”.  While Boris Johnson’s announcement of an extra £700 million for special needs education was welcome, he remarked, it was only half the additional money needed.

“Many councils have resorted to transferring funds from schools to pay for provision for children and young people with the highest level of needs,” he said. “It is a stop-gap solution borne out of desperation, but it is not sustainable and puts more pressure on school budgets.”

Matt Dunkley, of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, observed: “Local authorities need flexibility to transfer money from the different pots of school funding and to utilise their reserves to address this overspend, but it is unsustainable. The chancellor recently announced £700 million for [special educational needs] services, which will relieve some of the pressures on the high-needs block, but funding alone will not solve the systemic challenges we now face in meeting our statutory duties.”

The Department for Education when asked to comment, said, “No child should be held back from reaching their potential.”  It added that it had recently announced new high-needs funding worth £780 million in 2020-21, an increase of more than 12%.   However, it appears to be an ostrich-like mentality that ignores the soaring needs of children with SEND which are not match by the increased resources.

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