Six things behind the crisis in Special Educational Needs funding

Published: 23 October 2019

A selection of pencils
We’ve been working with central and local government to improve outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Over the past three years we have spoken to many council staff, teachers, parents, carers, care workers, and policy makers about their experiences of the system designed to provide additional support for children with SEND in schools.

Many parents and carers described close relationships with dedicated staff in schools and at local authorities who have helped them to overcome difficult situations and enabled their children to build skills and relationships in a supportive environment.

Some of those who work in local authorities have told me that policy is moving in the right direction, and that school cultures are now more inclusive for children with SEND and other disadvantages.

But many of the stories illustrate the struggle parents, teachers and officers face in a complicated, slow, and assessment driven system that should be more focus on meeting needs and working towards outcomes for children and young people.

A mother of a girl with autism told me she felt abandoned by the system after having requests for additional funding rejected by the local authority. One reason given was that her daughter was making adequate progress. My girl has high functioning autism, so she is very bright… Is adequate’ progress all that we should be aspiring to for her?”.

A teacher in a large secondary school in the north-west of England said that many of her pupils who needed most support were not eligible for additional funding. As her total budget had been squeezed she felt pushed into using SEND funding to meet the needs of the wider population in the school.

The head of a local authority SEND department talked of feeling trapped because the power the local authority had to influence outcomes was diminishing while its statutory responsibilities to meet the needs of every child remained the same. If we are devolving budgets to schools, how is the local authority supposed to retain all statutory responsibility for its children?”

At a meeting with a parent-carer forum a frustrated parent of a child with SEND felt that the problems in the system ran much deeper: we need a culture change, from the heads all the way to the dinner ladies”.

Over the next few months the Social Finance SEND team will write a series of blogs that look at how this crisis has developed, what we have learned about good practice and how outcomes for children and young people with SEND can be improved. This is the first in that series.

Our aim is to share insights from different parts of the country to support good practice and facilitate a conversation about local and SEND national policy and funding.

In October 2010, Ofsted published a report into the state of education for children with SEND. The conclusions were damming. Amongst much else, Ofsted wrote that

Too often, the agencies focused simply on whether a service was or was not being provided rather than whether it was effective […] The statement itself did not mean that their current needs were being met, but merely that they were likely to receive the service prescribed by their original statement.”

In the decade since that report was published, the number of children diagnosed with SEND has risen by 40%. There have also been significant and wide-ranging changes to the way that children with SEND are supported within the education system.

One of the most significant of these changes has been the SEND reforms introduced as part of the 2014 Children and Families Act. The Department for Education (DfE) made changes that genuinely attempt to establish more joined up, better provision, with more consistent support for children and young people with SEND and their parents/​carers. Many of these changes centre around what has become known as an Education, Health, and Care Plan (EHC Plan): a document which details a child’s special educational need, the outcomes that they are aiming to achieve, and usually what additional funding is being supplied by the Council.

Underpinning the Code, the DfE brought in three big changes which attempted to respond to the conclusions of previous system-wide reviews:

  • Schools and education departments at local authorities were to work with the health and social care teams to co-author, deliver, and own the results of a Plan for a child with SEND.
  • Funding for pupils with SEND previously dropped off at age 19, so the reforms extended the age of eligibility up to 25, creating a 0–25 system.
  • Plans for children with SEND were to be more personalised with personal budgets focused on outcomes, rather than simply detailing the provision they would receive or the needs to be met.

Local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups have been embedding these reforms over the past three years. The process has been slow and often painful. Health, social care, and education agencies are not used to working together. But more than this, their systems often don’t align, they retain independent statutory duties, and the language that people use about SEND varies across departments. Whereas a child is said to have SEND in a school context, that same child is said to have a disability in a health setting, or be a child in need within social care.

DfE have responded to these problems by  around SEND and providing additional short term funding to ease the pressure on local authorities. Ofsted is currently undertaking a five year task of inspecting the SEND system at all 152 local authorities. In the first two years of the inspections 30 of the 68 local authorities failed the inspection, and were required to submit a written statement of action to reform their services.

One of the ways that this crisis has started to show is in local authority High Needs Budgets. The BBC reported last year that eight in every ten local authorities are overspending on their High Needs block. And many have told us that demand for High Needs funding is accelerating.

This funding crisis is likely to be both a cause and an effect of the challenges in the rest of the system. When schools feel unable to support children with complex needs, more children are likely to end up requiring additional funding from the local authority. With less funding available for the local authority it is often the more preventative services that are cut in order to protect statutory services.

We don’t have all the evidence we would like for these points, but I think that there are likely at least six reasons why so many local authorities are overspending on SEND, many of them interlinked. These come from a combination of our work with local and central government, research, data analysis, and speaking to people across education health and social care about the issue:

  1. Widened eligibility: the reforms introduced through the 2014 Children and Families Act shifted eligibility for additional SEND funding from age 18 to age 25. The proportion of children with Plans who are over 18 has since been rising sharply as the reforms feed through the system. In 2016 0.4% of Plans were for young people aged 20–25, rising to 5.3% in 2019. It was imagined that the increase in eligibility would enable a short period to allow young people to transition off EHC Plans, where in reality many are remaining on EHC Plans into their 20s.
  2. Parental expectations: the reforms appear to have had the positive impact of raising parental expectations and increasing parental choice about which school their child can go to. However, this may be increasing pressure on high needs budgets as more pupils being educated in special schools and independent schools despite a preference for inclusion in mainstream school in the DfE’s guidance.
  3. Rising awareness of need and available support: although many areas have struggled to implement the reforms in a way that enables effective joint-working between education, health, and social care, we have heard that identification of need is improving, and there may have been a rising awareness from health and social care staff of the availability of an EHC Plan, both leading to more referrals from outside of the school system.
  4. Schools as the four th emergency service: pressure on social care and health budgets has led to increased reliance on schools as sources of support beyond their traditional function. Some have written of schools as playing the role of a fourth emergency service as other services are removed. At the same time total school spending per pupil fell by 8% in real terms between 2009/10 and 2017/18. We have also heard that the lack of capacity in the mainstream sector may be leading schools to suggest more pupils apply to special schools (or independent placements where special school places are not available) — which are typically more expensive placements.
  5. Cuts to preventative spend: with increasing pressure on core schools’ budgets and local authority High Needs budgets it has often been preventative spend that has been cut to preserve spending on acute needs. As demand for EHC Plans increases, Councils have often felt that they have to make cuts to core preventative services to meet their statutory responsibility for those in most need of funding. At the same time schools have felt unable to retain pastoral leads and other staff focused on lower level needs in school.
  6. Curriculum reform: alongside changes to the SEND system through the 2014 Children and Families Act, there have been other policy shifts towards a curriculum more focused on core academic subjects. We have heard that this move may have resulted in more children moving to special school where there is not as much flexibility to accommodate their needs within a mainstream curriculum. 

Although the system designed to support children with SEND is facing challenges on multiple fronts, we have seen a huge amount of energy for change led by inspiring leadership teams. That desire seems to be based on a shared recognition that the system as it stands is not working for children and families, and that something substantial has to change.

That desire for change has led to some great examples of partnership building across teams in education health and social care, and a move to bring parent and child views closer to decision making about the management and delivery of local provision.

Over the coming months during this SEND Futures blog series we what to hear your views, examples of good practice and new approaches you would like to see tested.

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