Time for a fresh look at funding

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Funding should be based on the needs of individual pupils, argues John Atkins

The funding of special educational needs is one of those issues that seems to come around repeatedly. Authorities' funding regimes start off straightforward enough, but over the years seem to lose the will to live, becoming hugely complex and confused as more and more fixes are bolted on.

There are two reasons for a special educational needs funding review now.

One is Every Child Matters, which places more importance than ever before on ensuring that all pupils receive the access to learning to which they are entitled.

The other is the education White Paper and its proposals: if schools'

independence from local authorities were to be strengthened, then financial arrangements between school and authority would need to be particularly clear.

Nowhere does there seem to be more potential for confused financial arrangements than in special needs. But funding can actually be straightforward - it just needs a clear head. And the place to start is by thinking about inclusion.

There are two ways in which funding regimes can frustrate inclusion, and it's worth looking at both. The first is the amount of money available to support inclusion, and the second is the way it is allocated - particularly to mainstream schools.

preventing inclusion First, the money. The decision on whether a particular young person should be in a special or mainstream school should not be influenced by quirks of the local funding arrangements.

Yet I see instances where the extra resources available to a mainstream school for a pupil with special needs is limited, but a more expensive special school place is subsequently made available when the mainstream school finds it cannot meet the pupil's needs. If the mainstream school had been offered a similar level of resources in the first place, it might have been able to meet the pupil's needs better.

This is not an argument against special schools. I am a committed supporter of special schools, and believe strongly that many pupils benefit greatly from the range of learning experiences and specialist resources they can offer.

And I do not defend the practice in some authorities of spending far more on a mainstream school pupil in the name of "inclusion" than an equally satisfactory place at a special school would cost.

But the staunchest defender of special schools would not argue that they are right for all pupils with special educational needs. My argument here is that the resources available to support a pupil should be based on the pupil's needs and wishes alone.

That way, decisions over which school the pupil attends can be taken in the pupil's best interest, unaffected by finance.

My second point concerns how money for special educational needs is allocated to mainstream schools. Traditionally, this is done through a statutory assessment, carried out in conjunction with parents, professionals and the pupil's school. At the end of this process a statement of special educational needs is drawn up (if it is judged necessary). The statement sets out what is to be done, and the school receives extra funds to do it.

However, this model is increasingly under attack. A number of local authorities are trying to allocate special needs funding to their schools using a formula. They are proposing to allocate resources on the basis of a "proxy assessment" of the school's population (perhaps based on the proportion of pupils registered for free school meals, perhaps on some deprivation index applied to its local catchment), rather than on the needs of individual pupils.

Two advantages are claimed for this. First, it cuts down on the administration required in drafting all those statements. Second, it gives the school some continuity in funding, so that it does not go up and down as the number of pupils entitled to additional funding fluctuates.

need for statements I cannot support this argument. Statements are not just a funding device.

They offer significant guarantees and safeguards to parent and pupil. As a parent in that position, I would want a statement whether or not it affected funding of the school by the local authority.

More subtly, "funding by proxy" does not reflect how decisions over special educational needs actually impact on schools. Consider a school that might receive pound;1,000 per year in "delegated proxy funding for statements", regardless of whether it has any pupils with statements or not.

For 19 years it has no such pupil, and then, in the 20th, along comes a pupil whose special needs will require pound;20,000 in funding. Was the school meant to have "saved" those pound;1,000 payments across all those years? If not, where will the money come from?

Moreover, the school will get no further money for accepting that pupil.

Nor does it lose any funding by turning that pupil away. Which way will the mainstream school jump?

What is needed is a funding approach that assesses the needs of individual pupils and then allocates the same level of resource to meeting those needs regardless of the school the pupil subsequently attends.

Of course, there should be a baseline level of additional funding below which a mainstream school is expected to cope - special needs funding systems should not dole out the odd hundred pounds, or the volume of paperwork would indeed be huge.

Above that baseline, funding should be related only to the needs of the pupil at the school he or she attends. Everyone involved will then understand the process, and decisions about pupil placement can be made in the pupil's best interests.

John Atkins is an independent consultant who has worked on funding reviews with a number of local authorities, whose support he acknowledges. However, the opinions in this article are his own. He can be contacted on john@atconsult.co.uk

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