Funding to support some of the most vulnerable children in the education system is being cut, according to research from an early years charity published today.
A survey of maintained nursery schools (MNS) by Early Education, a professional association for early years, shows that one in six got no extra funding for children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) despite having children eligible for SEND support [those with milder SEND] or with education, health and care plans (EHCP) in place.
More than a third (37 per cent) of the 128 schools surveyed reported that less funding had been available since April 2017 or that they had pupils whose increased funding did not match their increased hours.
One nursery described their situation as being at "breaking point".
“Schools are having to meet the needs of children with SEND with less funding than they used to be able to access,” Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said.
“If you put money in early it makes a difference to child and their families. If you wait until they start school, they are starting behind.
"It is really frustrating when you see short-term approaches to budgets rather than thinking in the long term and making sure that money is going in early.”
Maintained nursery schools must have a qualified teacher designated as a Sendco to ensure support for children with SEND, and many have specialist staff.
'Vital' SEND support at risk
The schools spent an average of £17,000 more on supporting children with SEND than they received in funding in order to meet children’s needs, the survey found.
"We are now at breaking point in terms of the quality of service we are providing for SEND children," said one respondent.
Ms Merrick said: “There are issues about how the processes are working for calculating what a child needs and what a provider can be expected to provide as standard and what needs top-up funding.
“Maintained nursery schools act as a canary in the coal mine because they have a high concentration of children with SEND so we can be pretty sure that others in the sector who don’t have the expertise and experience of navigating the system may be having a worse time.”
Schools for older pupils have a notional SEND budget, which is used to pay for up to £6,000 of support per child, but early years providers do not – meaning that they must use their core budget and request a top-up from their authority.
But the survey showed that the way authorities' distributed funds varied widely.
Local authority payments could be additional hourly rates per child, additional rates per child tiered according to need, lump sums per child, lump sums for a fixed number of places or outreach support in lieu of funding.
The survey found that, on average, children with EHCPs received £2,556 extra funding and those on SEND support got £730.
“Early intervention means children are set on a path of success,” said one respondent to the survey. “Hundreds of parents report the long-term impact on their children's lives of the support offered in nursery. Last year four children with EHCPs were signed off following support received early on and are achieving well. Without early support, the cost of specialist provision would be prohibitive.”
The survey comes after the NAHT headteachers’ union warned earlier this month that 94 per cent of headteachers were finding it more difficult to resource SEND provision than they had done two years ago.
Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “We have been clear all along that the government needs to provide significant, ongoing and sustainable funding to help councils manage the rising demand in support from pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
“The extra funding which maintained nursery schools receive in recognition of the significant support that they provide for young children with SEND, is due to end in 2019-20.
“Councils need urgent clarification around future funding for these nursery schools to ensure that they can continue to provide this vital support. Otherwise they may not be able to meet their statutory duties and children with high needs or disabilities could miss out on a mainstream education."
Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi said: "Maintained nursery schools make a valuable contribution to improving the lives of some of our most disadvantaged children. That’s why we are providing local authorities with around £60 million extra a year until 2020 to protect funding for these institutions.
“We have a range of measures in place to ensure local areas put the right support in place for children with special educational needs (SEND) and their families. All councils are required to set up a specific inclusion fund so children with SEND can make the most of free childcare.
“For children with more complex needs, local authorities can also draw on high-needs funding, which is at a record high of £6 billion across England, up from £5 billion in 2013.”