A lack of state-funded places is forcing councils to spend hundreds of millions of pounds to send pupils to independent special schools.
Councils sent up to triple the number of SEND pupils to independent special schools last year compared with six years ago, Schools Week can exclusively reveal.
Councils blame the shift on a lack of funds for new state places, leaving them unable to keep pace with the rising numbers of diagnoses.
There are also not enough special needs teachers – a situation made worse by the Department for Education’s lack of recruitment targets and data for the SEND sector.
But sending pupils to private schools can be costly.
Analysis by Schools Week shows that an independent place costs councils double that of a state place.
Private schools do a “great job” with their intake but children “could have their needs met in much lower-cost state provision.”
Dave Whitaker, executive principal of Springwell Learning Community in Barnsley, says private schools do a “great job” with their intake but that children “could have their needs adequately met in much lower-cost state provision.”
If state-funded places are not available to meet a pupil’s needs as specified on their education, health and care plan (EHCP) or statement, then local authorities are required to fund places at a private special school.
Freedom of Information responses from 110 councils seen by Schools Week reveal the councils spent an average £52,000 per pupil on independent special school places for 2015-16.
This almost doubles the £10,000 to £30,000 per pupil annual cost of a SEND pupil attending a state-funded school place, as estimated by SEND consultant Barney Angliss and Laxmi Patel, senior associate solicitor and head of education at law firm Boyes Turner, though both stress costs can be more if a pupil’s needs are severe.
Councils say that a rise in pupils diagnosed with autism, social and emotional needs, or severe physical and neurological needs, has put pressure on local state school places. It is believed the increasing number of children surviving a premature birth is causing the increase.
Schools Week approached the ten councils that spent the most on SEND places at independent special schools, according to their most recent data.
In 2010, Kent county council funded 145 pupils to attend independent special schools. Six years later that more than trebled to 494, costing the council £18.7 million in 2015-16.
Essex funded 262 pupils to attend independent special schools in 2010, rising to 358 by 2015-16; in Warwickshire the rise was from 196 to 248 pupils; and in Leicestershire from 170 to 233 pupils.
In total, the 110 councils spent £480 million out of their education budgets privately educating pupils with additional neeeds last year, in some cases paying an average of over £100,000 per pupil (see table below).
The investigation follows a National Audit Office (NAO) report last week that said SEND pupils were having to “travel further, or be inappropriately placed in mainstream schools” because councils were struggling to open suitable state-funded places, in part due to the lack of funding avaiable for new provision.
SEND teacher recruitment
Yet, even if local authorities could fund more places in local authority or free schools, they would “still face severe difficulties in the recruitment and retention of special needs teachers”, Angliss says.
Whitaker adds that a “lack of expertise among mainstream teachers” in special needs is pushing pupils into state special schools and then into independent special schools once the state sector is full.
According to the workforce census, a higher proportion of teachers in special schools left their job last year (11.9 per cent last year) than in mainstream primary and secondary schools.
There were also more posts filled temporarily in the SEND, pupil referral unit and alternative provision sector (which the Department for Education categorises together) at 1.5 per cent, compared with 0.8 across the state-funded sector overall.
At present, the department does not have targets for recruiting teachers with special needs roles and class sizes in special needs schools are also not recorded, unlike in the mainstream sector.
Simon Knight, director of education at the National Education Trust, says the lack of data makes it “currently unclear” how the challenge of insufficient SEND pupil places could be overcome.
The absence of SEND teacher recruitment initiatives is also “surprising”, he added.
The cost of building new special schools is greater than commissioning places from independent schools, councils told Schools Week, meaning they were disincentivised in the short-term from building new schools.
Buckinghamshire council says “the most cost-effective answer is not always to create more SEND places within the maintained system”, a point repeated by Hampshire and Leicestershire councils. Hampshire says independent provision can be cheaper.
Claire Dorer, chief executive of the National Association of independent and non-maintained Special Schools (NASS), says that when social care and therapy costs for pupils is included, residential independent schools can provide the same value for money as state-funded schools.
“If you consider the whole public purse cost, there is generally far less difference to the cost of an independent special school than people think.”
She says pupils are often only moved to independent schools after several “failed experiences” of provision elsewhere.
But Surrey, Warwickshire, Essex and Kent councils all say that they need to increase the number of state-funded places. Essex will fund at least 400 of the 815 needed places by 2020 to “reduce the number of pupils going to school out of county, or at independent special schools”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education says funding for children and young people with high needs will exceed £5.3 billion next year. “We trust local authorities to distribute this money based on the needs of their area.”
Case study based on postings to an online forum
John realises at the start of the school year that his daughter is not receiving proper SEND support at her current school.
“Anita is going into year 7 in September at a mainstream school. This was a mistake – I was trying to apply for her to belong to a special needs unit within the school.
“Now the unit can’t offer her a place, and the council has agreed that she would be best placed in a special school. They agree the mainstream school cannot meet her needs adequately at all.
My child has to suffer because there are not enough places
“So the council has applied to two schools, even to one they already knew didn’t have any places. Both have rejected her. Now the council is applying to four cross-borough schools – all of which I’ve called, and the likelihood of a place looks pretty bleak. And I rang non-maintained special schools, and they also look full.
“I don’t know what to do. I can’t comprehend this is the end of the road and my child has to suffer because there are not enough places to meet demand.”
John* then reads the following response on his online forum: “I would research private special schools and see if they have places?”
So he does. There is a nearby SEND independent college with a “good” Ofsted grading, but which other parents take a poor view of. Ill-feeling against the headteacher runs high. Although it’s only 10 minutes away, he dismisses it as a choice.
Another independent school, which is more than an hour-and-a-half’s drive away has places, is “outstanding” in all categories. The boarding fees are concerning: £58,831 to £68,202 a year. Day fees start from £40,752 a year.
The local authority says the nearby college has suitable provision for Anita and can offer her a place – but John refuses to agree. He contacts a SEND lawyer and takes his local authority to a tribunal. The tribunal upholds his argument, saying only the residential school with high boarding fees is capable of meeting Anita’s particular needs – proving he was right to protest.
“Now Anita has a place at the boarding school, funded by the council. I just wanted to share! She’s nervous about being away from home, it’s such a disruption to the routine she’s been used to.
“But I’m just really hoping it works out, and anyway there’s no other option, so fingers crossed.
*Not his real name