Pressure mounts over crisis in SEND funding

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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The conclusion from MPs’ inquiry into SEND looks set to be critical of how the 2014 reforms are working in practice. Funding is the core issue and last month thousands of parents took to the streets in protest. The DfE has launched a call for evidence on funding arrangements, but the pressure is mounting...

On May 21, Nadhim Zahawi MP and Nick Gibb MP appeared before the Education Select Committee to defend the state of SEND provision in our schools. This was the last session in what has been a year-long enquiry into the success or not of the 2014 SEND reforms.

Opening the hearing, chair of the committee Robert Halfon MP told the ministers: “Almost to a man and woman everyone who has appeared, everyone who has sent in evidence, no one thinks the system is working. Everybody thinks that special needs is currently a big mess even if the intention of the Children’s and Families Act was a very good one.”

Nine days after the hearing, thousands of parents and young people took part in protests at 26 locations across the country as part of the SEND National Crisis campaign. The day of action – on May 30 – culminated with the delivery of a 15,000-name petition to Downing Street.

The campaigners are angry that the SEND high needs budget has “failed to keep pace with demand”. They are worried about cuts to children’s centres and to vital support such as teaching assistants and warn that more and more families are “having to fight to get the right provision”.

In April, a report by think-tank IPPR North found that while high needs funding has risen by 11 per cent since 2015, demand has increased by 35 per cent. And recent government figures show that the number of young people with Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) or SEN Statements has risen from 237,100 in 2014 to 354,000 in 2019.

The DfE says it has increased high needs funding from £5 billion in 2013 to more than £6 billion in 2018/19. In December, it allocated an additional £350 million.

However, the Local Government Association warned last year that councils in England are facing a SEND funding gap of £536 million.
The National Education Union says that 93 per cent of local authorities are facing SEND funding shortfalls leading to support staff being axed, increased waiting times for assessment and cuts to specialist provision.

The 2020-2023 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) is due alongside this autumn’s Budget and there is now significant pressure on the DfE. Education secretary Damian Hinds acknowledged this at the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers in May, when he unveiled a “call for evidence” on SEND funding.

With this call for evidence, the government is keen to show that it is listening. It features an online survey and a number of workshops at which the main themes of the call for evidence will be discussed.

The survey comprises a 27-page document with 28 questions that will take around two hours to complete. Many of the questions are closed, but there are also opportunities for respondents to express their views. Some important themes are raised and schools may well wish to comment.

School funding formula

Respondents are asked to rank seven factors included in the formula in order of importance:

  • Age-weighted pupil unit of funding.
  • Low prior attainment.
  • A measure of area deprivation.
  • Eligibility for free school meals – deprivation relating to individual pupils.
  • Mobility – additional funding for schools that have a high proportion of pupils who start at a school mid-year.
  • Standard lump sum – intended to reflect fixed costs.
  • Other – there is flexibility here to add any additional factor suggestions.

There is the possibility that the factor of low prior attainment might be further differentiated with greater emphasis placed upon those with much lower prior attainment than those who just fell below the threshold.

The notional budget

Schools, in theory, are provided with some money for their SEN pupils within their budget. This notional money has perhaps been absorbed by other funding needs and schools may not feel that the money is there in reality.

There is a gap between the notional allocation of a potential £6,000 and the £6,000 that schools are expected to contribute before the high needs top-up funding can be accessed.

The idea of the threshold was partly conceived as a disincentive to schools pushing for an EHCP to attract more funding. The DfE acknowledges that schools are reporting difficulties with this threshold and seeks to clarify whether it is because costs have risen since 2013 or because of a shortage of funding. In reality it is likely to be a mixture of both.

Alternatives here include implementing a lower threshold, with schools able to access more from the local authority, or alternatively a higher threshold but giving more money to schools initially. One of the alternatives that is given is that of particular circumstances being taken into account, for example where schools are small, when there are a disproportionate number of pupils with high needs, or when pupils are admitted mid-year.

Early and collaborative

The call for evidence asks what measures might work best to support pupils at risk of being excluded from schools. The DfE would ideally like to see more early intervention and fewer students finding themselves in alternative provision. The ambition for moving support to intercept problems before they escalate is clear. However, the issue is how funding can be changed to enable this to happen. In the final section of the questionnaire, the DfE is asks schools for examples of invest-to-save approaches.

The DfE would also like to see more collaboration. The consultation recognises that individual funding arrangements can work against effective partnerships. The DfE’s ambition is a move away from budget holders trying to pass on the cost to others rather than addressing the problem. The DfE wants to know more about perverse incentives and how funding can help schools and authorities make the right decisions.

The evidence mounts

The pressure on the DfE is mounting, as is the evidence of problems in the system. One particular concern is that some children who had SEN Statements have not qualified for EHCPs and are falling through the gaps. The IPPR report states: “There is considerable variation in the quality of support provided between local areas, especially for those not eligible for an EHCP. This is related to the reductions in funding for SEND support, and for schools and local government more generally.”

The May 30 campaigners point to parents who are resorting to legal battles to secure EHCPs and proper SEND support for their children. Parental appeals to the SEND Tribunal have increased by 80 per cent since the reforms began, with parents winning nine in 10 cases.

Complaints to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman about SEND have risen by 150 per cent since 2015 with 87 per cent of these being upheld. The government is also facing a legal challenge from parents over its approach to SEND funding. A full two-day hearing has been set in the High Court for June 26 and 27.

All of this is likely to be reflected in the Education Select Committee’s SEND inquiry report this summer and in a National Audit Office report on SEND support that is due out this autumn. Back at the select committee hearing, Mr Zahawi responded to the chairman’s remarks with an admission that SEND support was “patchy” and that implementation of the reforms had been “challenging”. Both he and Mr Gibb said they would be making the case for more SEND funding: “We understand the pressure,” Mr Gibb added.

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