While some children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are receiving high-quality support, many others are not getting the help they should, according to the National Audit Office (NAO). Local authorities are coming under growing financial pressure as the demand for supporting school pupils with the greatest needs rises.
In its report published today, the NAO estimates that the Department for Education (DfE) gave local authorities £9.4 billion to spend on support for pupils with SEND in 2018-19 – 24.0 per cent of their total core grant for schools. While the DfE has increased school funding, the number of pupils identified as having the greatest needs – those in special schools and with education, health and care plans (EHC plans) in mainstream schools – rose by 10.0 per cent between 2013-14 and 2017-18. Over the same period, funding per pupil dropped by 2.6 per cent in real terms for those with high needs, and also decreased for those without EHC plans.
Local authorities are increasingly overspending their budgets for children with high needs. In 2017-18, 81.3 per cent of councils overspent compared with 47.3 per cent in 2013-14. 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. In some cases, this is due to a lack of appropriate places at state special schools.
In response to overspending against these budgets, local authorities are transferring money from their budgets for mainstream schools to support pupils with high needs. They are also using up their ringfenced school reserves, which have dropped by 86.5 per cent in the last four years. This is not a sustainable approach.
Stakeholders in the sector have raised concerns that the demand for special school places is growing because the system incentivises mainstream primary and secondary schools to be less inclusive. Mainstream schools are expected to cover the first £6,000 of support for a child with SEND from existing budgets and cost pressures can make them reluctant to admit or keep pupils with SEND. Another barrier is that schools with high numbers of children with SEND may also appear to perform less well against performance metrics.
Pupils with SEND, particularly those without EHC plans, are more likely to be permanently excluded from school than those without SEND. Pupils with SEND accounted for 44.9 per cent of permanent exclusions in 2017/18. Evidence also suggests that pupils with SEND are more likely to experience off-rolling – where schools encourage parents to remove a child primarily for the school’s benefit – than other pupils.
While Ofsted has consistently rated over 90 per cent of state special schools as good or outstanding, most pupils with SEND attend mainstream schools. Short Ofsted inspections of ‘good’ mainstream schools are not designed to routinely comment on SEND provision, so provide limited assurance of its quality.
The NAO has also raised questions about the consistency of support across the country as there are substantial unexplained variations between different local areas. Joint Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspections indicate that many local areas are not supporting children as effectively as they should be.
The NAO recommends that the DfE should assess how much it would cost to provide the system for supporting pupils with SEND created by the 2014 reforms and use this to determine whether it is affordable. The Department needs better measures of the effectiveness of SEND support in preparing pupils for their adult lives and should make changes to funding and accountability arrangements to encourage and support mainstream schools to be more inclusive. It should also investigate the reasons for local variations to increase confidence in the fairness of the system, identify good practice and promote improvement.
Since the report was completed, on 6 September 2019, the DfE has announced a review of support for pupils with SEND.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Access to the right support is crucial to the happiness and life chances of the 1.3 million pupils with SEND in England. While lots of schools, both special and mainstream, are providing high-quality education for pupils with SEND, it is clear that many children’s needs are not being met. I therefore welcome the Department for Education’s announcement last week of a review into support for children with SEND, following our engagement with them on this issue over recent months. We hope the review will secure the improvements in quality and sustainability that are needed.”
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