In a report published earlier this month the National Audit Office (NAO) found that while some children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are receiving high quality education, health and care (EHC), many others are not. The Department for Education was urged to act urgently because the SEND system is not financially sustainable. The vast majority of local authorities are failing to live within their budgets and meet the demand for support, to such an extent that their schools funding reserves are almost depleted.
The report was published a week before the Government provided an additional £700m (in cash terms) for 2020-21. That shouldn't detract from the NAO's analysis highlighting the significant financial pressures being faced by local councils. Indeed given, as pointed out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that the number of pupils’ under-16 with SEN or SEND statements is growing at 5% plus a year - even higher for those over 16 - the extra funding might only be enough to keep spending per pupil constant in real terms.
So it is perhaps more significant that the Government has also launched a review of the SEND system which will report and feed into next year’s comprehensive spending review. A key issue that must be addressed is the funding incentives on mainstream schools to be more inclusive towards SEND pupils, responding to evidence (see the Timpson review) that they are more likely to be excluded from schools, ‘encouraged to move’ schools or not accepted in the first place, as schools’ fear that they cannot afford to take on such pupils and will be punished by school league tables for doing so. While others are facing difficulties meeting pupils’ needs or are unable to cope with their behaviour. This is pushing parents to demand, and local councils to provide access to, more expensive provision within the specialist sector including at independent special schools to the extent we are running out of places, as well as cash to pay for it. A crunch point is expected over the next two years despite planned investments to expand SEND provision at mainstream and special state schools by around 11,700 additional places.
Addressing the local variations found by the NAO around entitlements, expenditure and outcomes will also be key, particularly given that Ministers are keen to "ending the post-code lottery that [parents] often face" around who gets EHC plans and the support that comes with them, or not, who gets SEN support, or not, and who gets access to specialist schools. The Department for Education has so far failed to investigate this.
There's no mention of whether the review will cover the 19-to-25 age group, indeed the NAO was silent on this age group. That’s surprising given that this cohort is growing faster than others: the number of young people aged 16-to-25 with statements grew from 40,000 in January 2016 to nearing 100,000 in January 2019, representing two-thirds of statement growth across all age groups.
The 2014 reforms substantially changed the SEND system and extended support up to the age of 25, but the Coalition Government didn't fully assess their impact or costs and consequently misjudged their financial consequences. So expect that when it comes to considering the NAO report, the Public Accounts Committee will hold DFE officials 'feet to the fire' to commit to ensuring that the system review and the CSR does assess how much it would cost to provide a system creating by those reforms and use this to determine whether its affordable or not.
In the meantime the Education Select Committee will contribute its own views with a long overdue report on the subject, perhaps next month or November.
Next year’s spending review will not be comprehensive if the Government fails to offer a route map and funding to return stability to the SEND system, and other areas of expenditure like it, recognising that it will take a few years to get there.
Mark Upton, is a freelance consultant on public policy and public affairs, and this blog is drawn from his briefing on the NAO report (“Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England”) and latest developments on SEND for members of the Local Government Information Unit: www.lgiu.org.uk/briefing/support-for-pupils-with-special-educational-needs-and-disabilities-nao/