An influential committee of MPs has accused the Department for Education of having “set local authorities up to fail” in a damning report on the state of education for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.
The parliamentary education committee criticised “serious errors” in how the government administered money and its failure to provide extra money when needed, and said the funding shortfall was a “serious contributory factor” to a failure of schools and councils to meet children’s needs.
Despite the good intentions of the reforms, many children with special educational needs and disabilities are being let down day after day
The report comes at a time of crisis for SEND pupils and those who teach them.
The government’s own auditor warned last month that insufficient funding and severely stretched council budgets had left pupils with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) without the support they need, and headteachers have reported facing impossible decisions about the level of support they provide.
The education committee inquiry focused on the implementation of reforms brought in under the children and families act 2014, which among other things saw the introduction of education, health and care plans (EHCPs) as a replacement for statements, and the extension of support to young adults up to the age of 24.
Although the committee said the government was right to implement the reforms, it said ministers had “failed to fully consider the increased costs and pressures that the duty to maintain an EHCP to 25 would place on local authorities and their staff, and schools and colleges”.
Failures of implementation had resulted in “confusion and at times unlawful practice”, as well as “bureaucratic nightmares, buck-passing and a lack of accountability”.
Broader funding challenges were “compounded by an apparent lack of clarity about who is responsible for paying for what, with some schools and local authorities footing the bill for interventions that should be provided by the health services”.
MPs also accused the DfE of failing to take enough responsibility for ensuring its reforms are overseen, and that practice in local authorities “is lawful, that statutory timescales are adhered to, and that children’s needs are being met”.
“We are concerned that the department has left it to local authorities, inspectorates, parents and the courts to operate and police the system. There is a clear need for the department to be more proactive in its oversight of the way in which the system is operating.”
Robert Halfon, a Conservative MP and former education minister who now chairs the committee, said that the “good intentions of the reforms, many children with special educational needs and disabilities “are being let down day after day”.
“Many parents face a titanic struggle just to try and ensure their child gets access to the right support,” he said.
“Families are often forced to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, in a system which breeds conflict and despair as parents try to navigate a postcode lottery of provision. A lack of accountability plagues the system as local authorities, social care and health providers too frequently seek to pass the buck rather than take responsibility for providing support.”
He called for “radical change to inspection, support for parents, and clear consequences for failure to ensure the 2014 act delivers as the government intended”.
The committee made a number of recommendations, including a call for Ofsted to issue a specific judgment for SEND provision, and for the local government and social care ombudsman to get more power over schools.
A DfE spokesperson said the report “recognises the improvements made to the system over five years ago were the right ones, and put families and children at the heart of the process”.
“But through our review of these reforms, we are focused on making sure they work for every child, in every part of the country.”
DfE ‘pulled the rug from under its own plan’
Headteachers’ unions today reacted to the report strongly, calling for better funding and changes to the system.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at school leaders’ union ASCL, said the report “lays bare the fact that the government pulled the rug from under its own laudable plan to improve support for young people who have special educational needs by failing to fund properly the public services responsible for delivering the system”.
“We note the education committee’s recommendations for a greater focus on SEND in school inspections and powers for the local government and social care ombudsman to investigate complaints about schools, and we naturally recognise the vital importance that SEND provision is delivered to the highest possible standard,” she said.
“However, this crisis cannot be solved by the big stick of more oversight when what is needed is sufficient resources and joined-up education, health and social services which ensure the needs of these young people are met swiftly and in full.”
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT leaders’ union, warned that schools and councils “have been left struggling to meet the needs of our most vulnerable pupils”.
“With the number of pupils identified as having additional needs continuing to rise, funding for both education and health and social care services must keep pace. Far more specialist provision is needed in the form of external services, specialist support in mainstream schools and additional special school places. Until the SEND system is fixed, the wider school system will remain in crisis.”