This year, the funding crisis affecting children with SEND and their families finally got the political attention it needs. Julie McCulloch explains how it came about, and what needs to happen next

The lack of adequate financial support for children with SEND has been at the sharpest end of the school funding crisis for years now, but 2019 saw the publication of two comprehensive, authoritative reports that highlight the extent to which some of the most vulnerable young people in our society are being systematically short-changed.

The first report came from the House of Commons education select committee. Released in July, it raised “deep concerns around long-term strategic planning and financial prudence regarding high needs funding.” Expert witnesses told the committee that funding levels for children and young people with SEND were unsustainable, warning that “unless we can address the issues about SEND funding, the whole system will implode.”

Hot on the Education Committee’s heels, in September the National Audit Office (NAO) published a similarly damning report on the support currently provided for pupils with SEND in England. The report concluded that, while some pupils with SEND are receiving high-quality support that meets their needs, many others are not. The complex system for supporting pupils with SEND is not financially sustainable, with many local authorities finding it impossible to live within their high-needs budgets and meet demand, the NAO concluded.

To make a real difference, the new government must go further

The reasons why the school and college funding crisis is impacting so severely on pupils with SEND are myriad and complex. One of the medical miracles of our age is that more children who were born prematurely, and with disabilities, live longer than previously. This in turn means the number of young people with significant additional needs is growing.

In addition, new rights for parents to request particular services for their children, introduced in 2014, have understandably led to increased parental expectations, which the system is failing to deliver. An over-focus on securing an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) as the ‘golden ticket’ to SEND support has, perversely, made it more difficult for schools to offer and fund interventions that might help struggling children both earlier and in a more cost-effective way. And a vicious circle is created by parents who, losing faith in mainstream schools to provide the support their children need, instead seek places in more expensive specialised SEND provision.

Late in the day, 2019 became an election year, but not a moment too soon for those hoping and campaigning for change. In their manifestos and promises, all three major parties committed to increasing school funding, with SEND funding meriting specific mentions.

The Conservative Party pledged to increase the annual schools budget by £7.1bn by 2022/23, with £780 million earmarked to support children with SEND next year. Labour said it would increase the schools budget by £10.5bn over the same period, and would “provide the necessary funding for children with SEND.” The Liberal Democrats promised to “reverse cuts to school funding”, provide an “emergency cash injection”, and “allocate additional cash to local authorities to halve the amount that schools pay towards the cost of a child’s Education Health and Care Plan”.

These commitments are significant and welcome. In order to make a real difference to the lives and prospects of children with SEND, though, the new government must go further.

It must undertake a proper, evidence-based analysis of the real cost of supporting pupils with SEND – and commit to providing the money needed, on a long-term basis, to enable schools and colleges to provide that support.

It must address the issues which make it harder for schools to put in place measures to support children early, rather than relying on the costly and time-consuming EHCP process.

And it must undertake a review of the use of independent provision for children with SEND, to ensure decisions on such placements are taken fairly, consistently and strategically around the country.

If 2019 was the year in which funding for children with SEND received the attention it deserves, let’s make 2020 the year in which we actually do something about it.