Cuts to special educational needs provision could feed a vicious cycle of insufficient supply and overwhelming demand – increasing pressure on a system that is already stretched thin, Ofsted has warned.
The reduction in school support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) will potentially reinforce the view among parents that obtaining an education, health and care plan (EHCP) is the "golden ticket" for better provision, and drive up demand as a result, the watchdog said today.
In a blog published this morning, Ofsted's chief inspector Amanda Spielman reported on the findings of research that the watchdog had conducted on the impact of school funding pressures.
"Schools told us that they had reduced provision for SEND, and for pupils who receive SEND support (SEND-S) in particular," she said. "This ranged from reducing one-to-one support, to cutting their use of external services, such as educational psychology, behavioural support and alternative provision."
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Ms Spielman continued: "Individual support from teaching assistants had reduced particularly starkly, though not all the people we spoke to felt this meant quality of support had suffered.
"However, what the reduction in school support for pupils with SEND-S will potentially do is reinforce the view among many parents that obtaining an EHCP is the ‘golden ticket’ required for effective SEND-S. This could in turn drive further demand for EHCPs, increasing pressure on the SEND system.
The chief inspector also warned that the "funding squeeze" on local authorities had burdened schools with responsibilities that they are "not necessarily well equipped to provide".
"It is not reasonable to expect schools to be the main port of call for often highly specialised needs," she said. "Local SEND provision cannot be the responsibility of schools alone."
She also warned that overspending on local high needs budgets was adding to the pressure on schools.
"In 2017–18, more than four out of five LAs overspent their high-needs budget," she said. "This includes the money that central government gives them to fund mainstream schools to provide for pupils with particularly high needs.
"We do not make a judgement on whether the cause of this is too little funding, overly costly provision, or a combination of both. But a driver is certainly the 35 per cent increase in the number of pupils with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) since 2014."
The watchdog found that schools were forced to make "difficult decisions". It said many cases were dealt with "thoughtfully" but also highlighted examples of poor practice.
"In one school, for example, a special educational needs and disabilities coordinator (Sendco) was given a 100 per cent teaching load," Ms Spielman said.
"In another, teachers were asked to deal with SEND-S by differentiating instruction using a five-side registration sheet recording the needs of every pupil in the class."
Ms Spielman added that Ofsted's inspections of local SEND services had uncovered "major challenges" facing special needs provision across the country.
"These include over- and under-identification of SEND and a lack of join-up between local agencies, with fragmented provision sometimes leading to inconsistencies within an area," she said.
"Funding pressure, though not the sole cause, is likely to be an exacerbating factor."
The blog, published this morning, was removed from Ofsted's website a short time later. A spokesperson said it had been shared in error, and was intended to be read alongside a separate report that will be published in the coming weeks.
In October, a major report from the Commons Education Select Committee called for accountability checks on schools to be toughened up to assure parents that they are delivering for pupils with SEND.
The MPs' report suggested that schools should face a new type of Ofsted inspection focused on those with special needs, or that the watchdog should increase its focus on SEND through existing inspections.
But Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the crisis "cannot be solved by the big stick of more oversight".
In September, a Tes investigation revealed that more than half of the first 100 area inspections had found significant weaknesses with widespread concerns over the quality of EHCPs and the number of pupils with SEND being excluded from mainstream schools.