The SEND funding system is failing to keep up with pupil needs: here’s what the government should do, says Natalie Perera.

Anyone working in education will be acutely aware of the growing demand to support pupils with more complex needs.

New data by the Department for Education affirms this: it shows that the number of pupils in England with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has risen for a third consecutive year. As of 2019, there are now over 1,300,000 pupils with SEND in England – that’s around 15 per cent of the entire pupil population.

What’s driving this upsurge?

The rise can be attributed to an increase in both the number of pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) and SEND support, which have been driven by population growth, better diagnosis of conditions and growing parental expectations. The recent extension of services to young people with SEND up until the of age 25 has also played a role.

Given these reasons, the continued rise in the number of pupils with SEND may not be a huge surprise to those in the profession, but it will certainly generate further concerns about the ability of the funding system to deal with a more challenging pupil population.

There are strong signs from the sector that the current system is already failing to keep up with rapidly evolving pupil needs. We can point to several discrepancies rooted in the high needs system, which allocates additional funding to those with SEND.

Problems are mostly centred around a lack of responsiveness since the formula used to calculate schools’ high needs funding is based on historical spending patterns and so fails to keep up with SEND needs, which are often in flux.

The upshot is an unequal system: a SEND pupil in one area could attract far less funding than a pupil in another, despite having the same needs.

The system also lacks flexibility. For example, local authorities wanting to transfer funding into their high needs allocation to boost support for SEND pupils are constrained from doing so.

More fundamentally, growing budgetary pressures on schools now mean that those in the mainstream sector are simply struggling to provide adequate support for pupils with SEND. Closely linked to this is the question of inclusion: the growing squeeze reported by schools may also be engendering perverse incentives. In the face of these pressures, it is likely that schools will face difficulties taking on pupils who require extra financial resources.

SEND funding has long been overlooked by policy-makers, but in the face of strains on the system, the issue finally looks to be receiving the energy and attention that it deserves. At the end of 2018, the government announced an additional £350m for SEND over the next two years.

While this was a welcome move, the consensus from those outside of government was that this was unlikely cut to the heart of some of the faults in the system. The education secretary, Damian Hinds, has also committed to a funding review and there are several areas he would be wise to consider when this begins.

Firstly, it could tackle the rigidity in the current system, and consider granting more flexibility to local authorities, so that they have freedom to shift money to their high needs blocks.

A thorough review of  all the pressures around inclusion, which look to be impinging on schools’ ability to support and retain pupils with SEND, is essential. The government should also take into account the impact on families’ access to wider health and social care services – which may also be creating additional pressures for schools.  As well as these changes to the system, ahead of the spending review, serious consideration should also be given to the overall pot of funding available to support pupils with SEND.

The educational needs of many children and young people are increasingly complex and may become even more so if the current trends are anything to go by. Parents often struggle to access the services they need for their children, with many increasingly resorting to the use of appeals.

The government must become more responsive in its approach to SEND funding: it cannot afford to continue to lag behind.