Independent special schools are cost effective

It is in everyone’s interests to get SEND support right, says Claire Dorer. For many pupils that means a place in an independent special school

It’s rare to see media coverage on special needs provision in non-maintained and independent special schools (NMISS) without cost being mentioned. Generally this is in relation to absolute costs and their supposed relationship to costs in the maintained sector.

In response, back in 2012, the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools (NASS) commissioned accountancy firm Baker Tilly to explore comparative costs in different settings. The report concluded that if you compare like-for-like costs, including transport, therapies and short breaks, placements in NMISS for some children can be cheaper than equivalent local authority packages of support.

For example, weekly boarding in a NMISS was found to be £22,000 a year cheaper than equivalent local authority packages of support.

This makes some sense when you consider that most NMISS were set up to meet mainly complex and low-incidence SEND, areas in which some schools struggle. Tribunals have consistently supported the argument that when we compare costs we must look at the cost to the whole public purse, not simply compare teaching and learning costs in a maintained school with the full fee in NMISS. On this basis, the cost differential between NMISS and local authority provision is rarely as extreme as it is believed to be.

The cost differential is rarely as extreme as it is believed to be

In an attempt to move discussions about cost on a little, in 2012 NASS also carried out its first study on social return on investment. Essentially, we wanted to know whether meeting SEND effectively in childhood delivers economic benefits to the public purse in later life.

It does! Looking at eight schools, we identified public purse savings of £24.5 million over the lifetime of students from just one year group. Young people have better chances of leading independent lives, in work or in further study, when their education needs are met well. Their families experience less stress and ill health, and many find they are able to return to work.

While this argument won’t apply to NMISS alone, it makes a powerful case why it is in everyone’s interests to get SEND support right.

NASS is currently conducting a survey of parents with children in NMISS as part of our evidence-gathering for the Lenehan review. To date, 300 parents have responded. Of those, more than 70 per cent went through two or more schools before their child was placed in a NMISS, with 10 per cent going through four or more schools.

Almost 40 per cent went through, or started, tribunal proceedings before getting their place. None of this paints a picture of local authorities making spur-of-the-moment decisions to place children in NMISS.

The pressure on maintained special schools is significant and well documented. This is in part due to a population bulge and increasing numbers of children with SEND, but it’s not the full story. In 12 years with NASS I have seen numerous strategies that have talked about how new provision, first through Building Schools for the Future and now through special free schools, would address local demand and reduce use of NMISS.

In some cases, new special school provision may be a valid solution, but unless we find ways of meeting SEND more effectively in mainstream, we won’t stop an upwards “demand push” for more special schools and, when those schools also fill up, for more NMISS places.

If we are serious about there being a real “continuum of SEND provision”, we have to think about how different types of school best contribute to the wider system.

That might make a NMISS placement the best option for some, possibly as a short-term intervention before a return to lower intensity provision.

However, we under-use the expertise that we have in all types of special school to work to improve SEND provision in mainstream. This, I would argue, is where we should focus our energy.

For too many children, by the time they secure a wanted and valued place in a NMISS they, and their families, have already been failed by the system too many times. If anything causes us outrage, it should be this.


Claire Dorer is chief executive of the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools

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