The scale of stealth SEND funding cuts that hit specialist and inclusive schools the hardest can be revealed today.
The Department for Education said that by April, the high-needs funding given to councils to support pupils with special needs will have increased by 60 per cent – to £10.5 billion – in five years. In 2023–24 the funding rose by £970 million alone.
The cash goes to councils, which then distribute the funding to “top-up” funding for pupils with additional needs where extra support is required.
Many schools tell us they’ve seen no benefit from increases to council high-needs funding
However, research by Special Needs Jungle shows that the top-up funding levels for schools to deliver provision for children with education, health and care plans (ECHPs) has remained stagnant in a third of councils between 2018 and last year.
Matt Keer, SEND specialist at SNJ, said: “Many schools tell us they’ve seen no benefit from increases to council high-needs funding: it’s been too little and too late. Our research suggests that’s true.”
Further analysis revealed almost half of 136 council areas that provided the data did not increase their top-up bands – different levels of support based on a pupil’s need – between 2022–23 and this year.
However, analysis for this year is complicated somewhat in that special schools are receiving a separate allocation of high-need funding equivalent to 3.4 per cent of their total income per place.
But it reveals a postcode lottery: Bury cut its bands payments by 9.6 per cent on average, compared to a 19.5 per cent hike in Harrow.
‘Extraordinary abdication of fiscal responsibility’
Simon Knight, co-headteacher at Frank Wise special school in Oxfordshire, added the “scale of variability” is an “extraordinary abdication of fiscal responsibility at a national and local governmental level that has to be addressed with urgency”.
Warren Carratt, chief executive of Nexus MAT, explained a child with severe learning difficulties in Rotherham attracts top-up funding of £14,300, compared to just £8,000 in Doncaster.
Marijke Miles, headteacher at Baycroft special school in Hampshire, said the postcode lottery is “yet another injustice to our most vulnerable children and their families to endure”.
“It is totally unreasonable and inequitable that the needs of a child attending a special school should be funded at a higher or lower level simply because of the locality where they live or, in fact, where they go to school.”
Special schools get £10,000 funding per pupil. But this figure has not increased since it was introduced in 2013 – an estimated real-terms cut of £1.3 billion.
Schools Week revealed last year how special schools were staring into budget holes of £1.5 million with heads saying “enough is enough”.
Miles estimated that these “hidden cuts” to place funding means she has missed out on about £300,000 of funding – the equivalent of five more teachers.
“My staff team is working flat out to cover this gap and children are losing out as a result,” Miles added. “Yet we are being asked to provide more and more for our students and their families, with ever more complex needs, and yet less and less contribution from partner agencies.”
Cuts putting strain on wider school budgets
The stealth cuts also impact mainstream schools, particularly those with larger numbers of pupils with EHCPs.
Schools must contribute the first £6,000 a year towards the costs of SEN provision. But they can also get top-up funding from councils if this isn’t enough to meet a child’s needs.
Due to the special school capacity crisis, mainstream schools are supporting pupils “who would typically have been placed in a specialist setting and doing so without any additional funding,” Alistair Crawford and Alison Ashley of the National Network of Specialist Provision warned.
The number of pupils with an EHCP has also risen since 46 per cent since 2019.
Cllr Alex Dale, chair of f40 group of councils, said councils are “in an impossible position”.
“If demand were static, local authorities would increase the bandings, but they have no option but to share the available funding among the higher demand. The lack of funding ultimately impacts on children and young people.”
But Micon Metcalfe, chief financial officer at the Diocese of Westminster Academy, said it leaves mainstream schools having to “contribute more to the cost of provision”, which “puts additional pressure” on school budgets.
Schools Week has previously revealed how councils have used cash intended for special schools to plug their deficits in their high-needs budget.
‘Deficits putting support of children at risk’
As part of its SEND reforms, ministers want to lessen demand for special schools by identifying need earlier and making mainstream schools more inclusive.
But Chris Rossiter, director of governance and compliance at Liberty Academy Trust, said the lack of funding and cuts to other support services “all negatively impact on mainstream’s ability to provide the necessary inclusive support”.
In its submission to the Treasury ahead of the spring budget, the Confederation of School Trusts said council deficits will “not be recovered through the development of inclusive practice in mainstream schools. It is simply too large.”
“Pressure to recover deficits puts the delivery of support to children and young people at risk, reinforcing failure and damaging parental confidence.”
The DfE plans to introduce a national approach to delivering funding bands and tariffs for more “consistent funding” across the country after 2025.
However, Keer said while this will help, “it’ll be like completely redesigning a nuclear reactor in mid-meltdown”.
The government will also review the £6,000 per pupil threshold as national standards are developed, it added. But the £10,000 funding is “not intended to reflect schools’ cost increases”, which instead should fall to increased top-up rates.
Special schools received a separate teachers’ pay additional grant via their council from September totalling £50 million.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Local authorities are responsible for their high-needs funding and should allocate funds according to local need and reflecting the increases in costs that schools have to meet.”