Unsustainable SEND system 'fails to meet pupils needs'

Spending watchdog warns that councils overspent high-needs budgets by more than £280m last year

A powerful public spending watchdog has warned that the funding of the SEND system is unsustainable.

Vulnerable children with SEND are not having their needs met in a system that has become financially unsustainable, a public spending watchdog has warned.

A National Audit Office (NAO) report says that with increased demand for special school places, a system that incentivises for mainstream schools to be less inclusive to children with SEND and a reduction in per-pupil funding is making the system less sustainable.

The watchdog says the situation led to four out of five councils overspending their budgets for children with high needs last year – by a total of £282 million.


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The NAO has today urged the government to work out how much funding is actually needed to run the system it created in 2014 to support children and young people with SEND.

The reforms, which included the creation of education health and care plans (EHC plans), were designed to ensure the needs of children with SEND were identified earlier and met by different organisations working together.

The NAO warns today however that many children with SEND are not having their needs met under the current system. 

The report highlights how 50 per cent of the area inspections into SEND services carried out by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission so far have identified weaknesses.

The public spending watchdog has called on the Department for Education to investigate why there are variations in the quality of support being provided to children and young people with SEND.

Meg Hillier MP, the chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: “It is vital that children with special educational needs and disabilities have the support they need at school for them to achieve their ambitions and lead fulfilling lives.

“Yet there are significant concerns that many pupils are not being supported effectively and the NAO’s report finds that based on current trends, the system is not financially sustainable.  

“The government must urgently review whether the current system is affordable and ensure that every child receives the support they deserve.”

The report says that councils are plugging the gap in their high needs budgets by taking money out of mainstream school and using up ring-fenced school reserves – which have dropped by more than 80 per cent in four years – an approach it warns cannot be sustained.

In 2017-18, 81.3 per cent of councils overspent compared with 47.3 per cent in 2013-14. 

The report says this is primarily driven by a 20 per cent increase in the number of pupils attending special schools instead of mainstream education. 

Local authorities have also sharply increased the amount they spend on independent special schools – by 32.4 per cent in real terms between 2013-14 and 2017-18.  The NAO says this is down to a lack of appropriate places at state special schools.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Helping all children and young people reach their potential is one of the core aims of this government, including those with special educational needs. 

“That is why the prime minister has committed to providing an extra £700 million next year to make sure these children get an education that helps them develop and thrive as adults.

“We have improved special educational needs support to put families at the heart of the system and give them better choice in their children's education, whether in mainstream or special school. Last week we launched a review of these reforms, to make sure every child, everywhere, gets an education that prepares them for success."

Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, Cllr Judith Blake, said: "This report underlines the significant financial pressures councils face to support children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

“Reform is needed and councils want to work with the Government and families and children with SEND on the forthcoming cross-government review to get a clear picture of why demand and cost pressures are continuing to rise and what can be done to make the system work more effectively for everyone.”

However, school leaders and campaigners have warned that the SEND system is struggling to cope.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said: “The picture facing schools supporting children with special educational needs is bleak. Not only are school budgets at breaking point, but there have also been severe cuts to local authority health and social care provision. Schools and councils are left struggling to meet the needs of our most vulnerable pupils.

“It is clear that the 2014 SEND reforms created unprecedented demand and funding has simply failed to keep up. The government significantly underestimated the cost of implementing these reforms and, as a result, we are now faced with a system in crisis.”

Ian Noon, chief policy advisor at the National Deaf Children's Society, said: “This report is yet more evidence of the shocking failure of the SEND system to meet the needs of disabled children.

“The 2014 reforms were hailed as a landmark moment in improving the lives of children with SEND, but five years later, councils are starved of funding, families are marching in the streets and parents are having to take legal action to get the support their child needs. Deaf children have been hit particularly hard, with their specialist teachers cut by 10 per cent in that time.

“Make no mistake, previous governments have neglected children with SEND. The new government has now announced another review, as well as £700 million extra for special needs education. It’s vital that this is now translated into urgent action so that money gets to the frontline, and to those who desperately need it, as quickly as possible.”

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