The SEND funding crisis can’t be hidden any longer

18 Dec 2019, 5:00

An Ofsted report found gaps in SEND support in mainstream schools.

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.

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  1. This is an awful article. Blaming parents for pursuing EHCPs when the reality is that lots of us have no choice. My child started school with a severe speech disorder. Without an EHCP he will receive no speech and language therapy. This is for a child whose own teacher cannot understand him.

    Please stop using the term “golden ticket”. It is insulting to parents and our children who have to fight so hard to receive the most basic support.

  2. I’d like to take issue with two points.

    1) No one sees an EHCP as a ‘golden ticket.’ What an EHCP should do, but sadly all too often doesn’t, is give a child access to the same opportunities they’d have had if they hadn’t had SEND. Is a right to a basic education a ‘golden ticket?’ Or is this phrasing an attempt to make parents the bad guys because their children are legally entitled to support and they want them to have it?

    2) Why blame parents for losing faith in mainstream schools? Why not blame the mainstream schools who have failed so many of our children? I struggle to understand how anyone can have read the reports to which Ms McCulloch refers in this article and retain faith in mainstream schools ability to provide for our most vulnerable children.

    So, here are a couple of other issues that need to be addressed.
    1) An increasing number of schools and colleges are refusing to admit young people with EHCP’s purely on cost grounds and without, apparently, caring what happens to them.
    2) Children with SEND are disproportionately represented in home education and exclusions. They are also statistically more likely to be off-rolled.
    3) Too many schools and colleges talk of inclusion while systematically breaching the Equality Act with one size fits all disciplinary policies and a culture that makes those with SEND feel unwanted.

  3. Getting an EHCP is often more to do with having articulate parents. In some deprived schools to be honest every child needs one. Our education system is not aligned with the needs of any children. We need to reform our education system to support children to develop fully and not to start formal education until motor-sensory integration is in place at 7 years+. That requires in place a good daily PE curriculum that ensured that all children achieve the following: (a) suppression of primitive reflexes; (b) bi-lateral integration of motor skills; (c) good postural control. We need a music, speech and language curriculum that promotes excellent sound processing before reading starts and is backed up with good sound therapy for those children that do not make progress. We need vision therapy for all children so that all children can achieve good binocular vision and visual processing skills. If all that was in place along with good diet and trauma informed strategies there would be far fewer children with SEN and far more children who were highly able.

  4. Funding is no substitute for expertise. Since Warnock, the emphasis on co-ordination and inclusion has displaced specialised teaching skill to the extent that more money is highly likely to be subsumed in paperwork that bears no relation to reality. I had yet another case this morning, which I’m likely to have to teach pro bono, because, yet again, a supposedly outstanding school does not have the expertise to enable the child to make progress. A change in emphasis, so that the SENCO is an expert teacher rather than a paper shuffler, is urgently needed.