Top DfE boss: SEND failures driven by 'stresses and strains' on the system

Failures of support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities have in part been driven by “stresses and strains” placed on the system following government reforms and funding pressures, the top boss of the Department for Education has admitted.

Jonathan Slater, the DfE’s permanent secretary, told the parliamentary public accounts committee today that his department had hoped to save money through the introduction of SEND reforms in 2014, but that the intended savings had not come to fruition.

The 2014 children and families act was a major shake-up of the SEND funding system that introduced new education and health care plans, which are supposed to better support children by being more specific about the support they are entitled to.

But a report by the National Audit Office last year found that under the new system, insufficient funding and severely stretched council budgets had left some of the most vulnerable pupils in the country without the support they needed.

The report catalogued a litany of problems, warning that in the face of real-terms funding cuts, schools had become less inclusive as they struggled to meet a requirement to fund the first £6,000 of EHCP provision from their general budgets.

It also warned that councils were increasingly overspending on their budgets, splashing out more on private provision and facing increasing legal challenges to their decisions about support.

Pressed on the SEND funding issue by PAC chair Meg Hillier today, Slater said the “stresses and strains that different parties in this system have been under will have led to behaviours of the sort that are identified in the [NAO] report”.

“In other words, any system is only as good as the context in which it operates,” he added.

Asked why the savings hoped-for by his predecessors had not been achieved in the reforms, Slater said: “I don’t think there was an actual savings target, although it was certainly the case that the department was aiming for the benefits to outweigh the costs”

“It certainly is the case that the department thought at the time that it should be possible for the overall system to cost less and that that has not happened.”

The senior civil servant, who was not at the DfE when the reforms came in, admitted that the looming 2015 spending review had probably been a factor.

“You’re asking me to comment on the work of people some time ago, and trying to put myself in their position, I’ve already referred to the fact that when the legislation was being debated in 2014, it was in advance of the 2015 spending review.

He added that the introduction of a new system “is always going to be put under more pressure, and could lead to more bureaucracy and challenge and cost if the various parties in it are struggling financially”.

“And the NAO has identified the financial pressure that local government has been dealing with since that legislation has passed and that obviously is a factor.”

Slater was also asked about problems with admissions of pupils with SEN support but no EHCPs, an issue raised by Schools Week just last week.

Our investigation found councils had reported that schools were refusing to take on pupils who tried to move school mid-year.

Slater said this was one reason why Ofsted’s inspection regime had been adapted to focus more on inclusion, and admitted he had seen for himself examples of schools refusing to engage with councils on the issue.

The DfE is currently conducting a review of the SEND system, after admitting it does not currently work for all pupils. It is not known when the outcome of the review will be published.