The former CEO of a multi-academy trust for children with special needs has said it is often "incredibly difficult to make the books balance", as a "phenomenal" surge in demand has met insufficient funding.
Dr Caroline Allen, former principal and chief executive officer at Orchard Hill College and Academy Trust (OHC&AT), reflected on the state of the special education provision after being made a dame in last week's New Year's Honours.
New Year's Honours: Damehood for MAT leader among New Year's Honours
Viewpoint: 'Every teacher should try special education'
Orchard Hill College started off as a small hospital provision in 1983, and has since amassed seven centres providing post-16 education for young people with special needs.
It established the Orchard Hill College Academy Trust in 2013, which runs 14 special schools for children with a wide range of learning difficulties across the south-east of England.
Asked about investment in the sector, Dr Allen said: “Of course, funding has always been a bit of a challenge, because you never have enough for what you want to do. Special needs is a growing demographic, and I believe that we did the right thing in growing. We needed to make it viable and to sustain that viability.
"We didn’t have an issue with viability at that time, but I could see strategically that we needed to plan for that – because it was pretty obvious [...] that there were going to be more people that needed the service, and no more money.
"One of the things I always advise people in the sector to do is think more strategically. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy at all. It’s incredibly difficult to make the books balance. There is a tendency to say: ‘We’ve put more money in, so what’s the problem?’ Well the problem is, if you look at the demographic increases in people with special needs, it’s phenomenal."
She added: "Local authorities have a very hard job because they don’t have enough people and resources. And also it’s an uneven spread across the country in terms of funding. It’s an enormous problem.
“The local authority is often completely insufficient. So we have become oversubscribed – we could fill some of our centres several times over. There is just too little."
Special needs 'emergency'
Earlier this year, the Local Government Association (LGA) urged the government to increase special educational needs and disability funding as new figures revealed a rising demand for education, health and care plans.
Councils warned they were facing a national special needs emergency and needed more funding from government to meet the "colossal demand" for support.
The LGA's call came shortly after the campaign group SEND National Crisis delivered a petition of more than 12,000 signatures to Downing Street, calling for more funding.
It is now on track to open a 150-place special free school and nursery for pupils aged 2-19 with autism spectrum disorder in Croydon, South London, in September 2020.
Dr Allen said she was optimistic about the future of special needs provision, so long as it is "appropriately resourced and supported and recognised".
She added: "One of the things I’d like to see is a greater focus on teacher training in relation to special needs, because a lot of teachers in schools – not ours, but particularly mainstream schools – really struggle, and it’s not because they aren’t willing, it’s because they don’t have the expertise.
“It’s so, so important for teachers to have a good grounding, and a feeling of confidence, because a lot of the time it’s a bit scary because you don’t kind of know what you’re doing – I think that’s part of the problem.
"I’d like to see that happening over the next few years; a better grounding in basic teacher qualifications and training in terms of special needs."
Getting to grips with off-rolling
On the issue of off-rolling, Dr Allen said: "What's important is to enable the sector to be more responsible. Rather than just generally saying, 'Oh it's terrible, everyone's off-rolling,' to actually look at the needs of the individuals, and equally look at the pressure on organisations.
"The problem is we tend to say, 'They're really bad, because they're off-rolling,' and probably some of them are, to be honest, but they're not all. There will be reasons. And we need to find out what those reasons are and try and make either policy or support to stop it happening.
"Because it's the kids and the students that are getting the worst deal out of it. Never mind who's right or wrong. Let's try and get it right for the kids."
In September, education secretary Gavin Williamson launched a major review to address problems in the support available for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “No child should be held back from reaching their potential. Our SEND review will look at how we can improve the support children and young people with SEND currently receive so the system works for everyone, in every part of the country.
“We have announced the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade, providing more money for every child in every school. As part of this, we are increasing high needs funding for local authorities by £780 million next year, boosting the total budget for supporting those with the most complex needs to more than £7 billion in 2020-21.”