How the £280m SEND funding could be better spent

Creating more special school places isn't the answer to providing better support to SEND pupils, says Jarlath O'Brien

Jarlath O'Brien

SEND funding: Why the DfE's new £280m could be better spent

I have just read that the Department for Education has announced £280 million for councils to spend on special educational needs and disability provision, promising a guaranteed minimum of £500,00 for any council. 

I am working on the assumption that this is new money (has anyone asked this question?), so we should welcome it. But I can’t help feeling worried.

I should be pleased, I hear you say. After all, I am often critical of the government’s approach to SEND provision, especially the complete absence of any acknowledgement of the over-representation of children with SEND when it discusses how we should be improving behaviour

I am worried because I don’t believe this country’s struggles to do better by children with SEND and their families are actually anything to do with a lack of places. If we doubled the capacity of the special-schools sector overnight, we would fill it without trying. It creates its own demand. 

I remember when I was first a headteacher, a colleague ran a residential special school for girls with moderate learning difficulties. Pretty niche – and, because it existed, parents queued up to get their daughters in there. Yet in other parts of the country no one was petitioning for the creation of just such a niche provision. 

SEND: No accepted definition of what 'mainstream' is

The central issue is that there is no accepted definition of what “mainstream” is. Largely, schools get to decide for themselves, and the more places we build for children outside the mainstream, the more children we will find who are deemed to required specialist provision. 

Incidentally, when I was headteacher of a school for children with moderate learning difficulties, I maintained that at least 50 per cent of the children could quite easily have had their needs met in mainstream schools. (“He cannot keep up at the pace we teach,” was the most memorable reason I was given for why one child couldn’t remain in a local secondary school.)

This is not an issue I see coming, by the way. It’s already happening.

The proportion of children with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) educated in secondary schools has been falling steadily for the past decade – though rising slightly in primary, interestingly. In tandem, the proportion of children with EHCPs educated in special schools has risen. I see nothing in the recent past that is doing anything to address that (or even acknowledge it).

The gradual deskilling of the teaching profession

I remain very worried about the idea of multi-academy trusts running their own alternative provision (we have to come up with a better name than that, too).

People get very uppity when I talk about adults making decisions that meet their own needs instead of the children’s, but MATs running their own pupil referral units provides the few unscrupulous leaders out there with a way to protect their mainstream schools’ reputations via subtle use of alternative placements. There are too many conflicts of interest in those kinds of proposals for my liking.

My biggest worry, though, is the gradual deskilling of the teaching profession. The greater the proportion of children we label as “requiring specialist provision”, the narrower the range of children and their needs that we are used to teaching. The evolution of the definition of what it is to be mainstream continues over time – when skills are lost to the mainstream sector, it is an uphill task to get them back. It’s hard not to see it as a one-way street.

Give the education sector more hammers, and all you will see are more nails, especially teenage ones. 

There are better, more inclusive tools around. You could provide a speech and language therapist, occupational therapist and psychotherapist for local groups of schools (recall the bidirectional link between language difficulties and behaviour, for example) – say, a secondary and some primaries (and forget about MAT loyalties when putting this together). 

And they could do a lot to support Sendcos – a group who face an increasingly tough job. I’d like to see £280 million spent on them instead.    

Jarlath O’Brien is the author of Better Behaviour – A Guide for Teachers, the second edition of which is published by Corwin Press

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