This week a cross-party group of MPs concerned about the crisis in special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) came together to support the f40 group in urging chancellor, Jeremy Hunt to take urgent action and invest in SEND in the autumn statement.
We recognise that government has increased funding substantially in this area in recent years, and policy changes are on the horizon with the change programme that came out of the SEND review. However, it is very clear that demand and expectation are far outweighing available funding and capacity in the system.
The number of children in need of SEND support is rising, especially following the Covid pandemic. Their complexity of need is also becoming more challenging.
We are hearing evidence of an increasing number of children with special needs in the wrong settings or without the support they require, and of schools struggling to cope with the demands placed upon them.
In many cases, teachers do not have the SEND training they need, impacting on recruitment and retention issues for schools.
The SEND system is under immense strain and urgent action is required now to ensure our most vulnerable children and young people are provided with the right support as quickly as possible and in the correct environment.
When we have a situation where most local authorities in England have a high needs deficit, some in excess of £100 million, we clearly have a problem that needs to be addressed.
f40, backed by many of the other major educational organisations, has calculated that an additional £4.6 billion is required to meet the current demand for SEND support.
That figure was reached by looking at the increased numbers of education, health and care plans (EHCPs) that have been issued to children and young people in need of extra support since 2015 following changes to the code of practice in 2014, along with inflationary pressures since then.
£4.6 billion may appear to be a startling amount, but it does not take into consideration any future growth. It is perhaps easier to understand when we consider the accumulative local authority high needs deficit is expected to be more than £3 billion by 2025. That is money already spent by local authorities on SEND support that will need to be paid back at some point.
Clearly, budgets need to increase to ensure the expectations set out in the code of practice are fully funded to meet current demand. All schools, SEND and mainstream, need significant further investment.
We know that the answer is not extra money alone. The challenges in the SEND system are many and complex, and they will take some years to work through. However, while the SEND and AP improvement plan makes some excellent suggestions such as introducing national benchmarks for SEND support and ensuring mainstream schools become more inclusive, they may never be implemented without the required funding.
If we don’t act quickly, we fear the situation will deteriorate further.
If we want mainstream schools to be more inclusive, we need to ensure all schools are funded properly to enable them to start interventions as soon as a concern is raised. And we need all teachers to be given the training and resources that will enable them to support children with additional needs quickly and effectively.
Mainstream schools must receive the right tools to enable them to provide the best support, and they must also be held accountable for their support of SEND and inclusivity.
Capacity also needs to increase. Local authorities need more capital funding to enable them to extend their SEND provision, either through additional SEND schools or adding SEND capacity to existing special and mainstream schools.
If local authorities have additional SEND places, they can reduce the number of children that are placed in costly independent provisions. These often cost twice as much, and are helping to drive the deficit budgets.
We need to speed up the process around extending SEND provision. Currently, it takes too long to get a new SEND school built as the levels of bureaucracy are painstakingly slow.
Let’s provide capital funding to every local authority for them to provide additional SEND capacity in a way that best meets their needs.
We know the answers are not easy, and we know the demands on the treasury are great, but all children deserve the very best education we can give them to enable a happy, well-rounded future workforce.
Let’s invest now to make sure our children, families, teachers, schools and local authorities get the support they so desperately need.