Councils struggling financially to support SEND

The National Audit Office has reported that many children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are not getting the help they should as demand rises.

The NAO estimates that the Department for Education gave councils £9.4 billion to spend on support for pupils with SEND in 2018-19 – representing 24 per cent of their total core grant for schools. While the government has increased school funding, the number of pupils identified as having the greatest needs – those in special schools and with education, health and care plans (EHC plans) in mainstream schools – rose 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.

This means that, today, local authorities are increasingly overspending their budgets for children with high needs. In 2017-18, 81.3 per cent of councils overspent compared with 47.3 per cent in 2013-14, primarily driven by a 20 per cent increase in the number of pupils attending special schools instead of mainstream education.

Stakeholders in the education sector have raised concerns that the demand for special school places is growing because the system incentivises mainstream primary and secondary schools to be less inclusive. Mainstream schools are expected to cover the first £6,000 of support for a child with SEND from existing budgets and cost pressures can make them reluctant to admit or keep pupils with SEND.

While Ofsted has consistently rated over 90 per cent of state special schools as good or outstanding, most pupils with SEND attend mainstream schools. The NAO stresses that short Ofsted inspections of ‘good’ mainstream schools are not designed to routinely comment on SEND provision, so provide limited assurance of its quality.

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. I therefore 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.”

Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “This report underlines the significant financial pressures councils face to support children with SEND. It also reflects our concerns that mainstream schools are increasingly unable to meet the needs of children with SEND, due to a combination of funding constraints, accountability pressures and curriculum changes meaning schools are becoming less inclusive.

“The extra £700 million for SEND announced in the Spending Round will help councils to meet the rising demand for support next year and we are pleased the government has also launched a review of the system. Reform is needed and councils want to work with the government and families and children with SEND on the forthcoming cross-government review to get a clear picture of why demand and cost pressures are continuing to rise and what can be done to make the system work more effectively for everyone.”

The Department for Education has announced a review of support for pupils with SEND since the NAO completed its report.