'Shocking failure of SEND system' highlighted in damning NAO report

The government’s own auditor has revealed that insufficient funding and severely stretched council budgets have left pupils with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) without the support they need.

Campaigners say the findings reveal a “shocking failure” of the SEND system.

The National Audit Office (NAO) report also reveals that local authorities’ spending on independent special schools has risen sharply in recent years, by £234 million in real terms between 2013-14 and 2017-18 to £957 million – a rise of 32.4 per cent.

The NAO said that councils are increasingly overspending their budgets for children with high needs. In 2017-18, 122 councils (81.3 per cent) overspent compared with 71 local authorities (47.3 per cent) in 2013-14. The NAO attributes this to the 20 per cent increase in the number of pupils attending special schools instead of mainstream education.

Ian Noon, chief policy advisor at the National Deaf Children’s Society, which consulted with the NAO on the report, said the findings were “yet more evidence of the shocking failure of the SEND system to meet the needs of disabled children”.

Gillian Doherty, SEND campaigner and founder of SEND Action, added: “These are not numbers on a spreadsheet; they are disabled children and young people who are being failed and denied their right to education. It’s essential to remember this when reviewing the financial sustainability of the system.”

Schools Week revealed in 2017 that a lack of state-funded places forced councils to spend £480 million to send pupils to independent special schools in one year.

Local authorities are transferring money from their budgets for mainstream schools to support pupils with high needs, the report states.

Councils are also using their ringfenced school reserves, which have plummeted by 86.5 per cent in the last four years, from £1.07 billion at the start of 2014-15 to £144 million at the start of 2018-19. The NAO warned: “This is not a sustainable approach.”

Earlier this year, Schools Week revealed that 22 councils had been given permission from the government to shift millions of pounds of school funding into their high-needs pot.

Cost pressures are making mainstream schools less inclusive, the report highlights, as schools are expected to cover the first £6,000 of support for a children with SEND from existing budgets. A further barrier is that schools with high numbers of children with SEND may also appear to perform less well against performance metrics.

The report highlights that, although the DfE has increased school funding, it has not kept pace with the rise in the number of pupils. Local authorities were given £9.4 billion to spend on support for pupils with SEND in 2018-19 – 24 per cent of the DfE’s total core grant for schools.

Last week the government launched a review into tackling the “postcode lottery” of support services available for children with SEND, just five years after launching its own major reforms to the sector.

The number of pupils in special schools and those with education, health and care plans (EHC plans) in mainstream schools, has risen by 10 per cent between 2013-14 and 2017-18. High‑needs funding per pupil fell by 2.6 per cent in real terms, from £19,600 to £19,100.

Per‑pupil funding in the schools block also reduced over the same period, despite a £754 million real-terms increase in total funding, the report states.

The NAO urged the DfE to look at the consistency of support across the country and urged the department to make changes to funding and accountability in order to encourage mainstream schools to be more inclusive.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, welcomed the DfE’s announcement last week of a review into support for children with SEND, adding that it was “clear that many children’s needs are not being met”.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the report shows the levels of education funding for SEND pupils is “inadequate”.

Courtney said: “On the Conservatives’ watch, the real-terms funding crisis in schools and colleges has damaged the support available to SEND pupils. It has resulted in the letting go of teaching assistants and specialist staff. Meanwhile, the number of children with EHC plans increases.”

A DfE spokesperson said helping all children reach their potential is “one of the core aims of this government, including those with special educational needs. That is why the prime minister has committed to providing an extra £700 million next year to make sure these children get an education that helps them develop and thrive as adults.

“We have improved special educational needs support to put families at the heart of the system and give them better choice in their children’s education, whether in mainstream or special school.”