SEND: A new approach to thinking about funding

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
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One of the biggest barriers to effective SEND provision remains inadequate funding. The facts and figures have been well-documented. Please, says inclusion expert Daniel Sobel, we need a new mindset...


The biggest elephant in the room of any discussion around inclusion and in particular SEND is the money it costs.

Local authorities are desperate to reduce their High Needs Block (HNB) funding in the face of an apparent over-application for Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), although this does not explain the blanket-style refusal of applications and the regular trips to the tribunal that I am witness to.

The cost of SEND and inclusion is mind-boggling, but these costs are perhaps felt the most by those trying to balance the books in the average school, where big-hearted intentions meets the stark realities of the annual budget.

In previous articles, I focused on the problems facing the SEND system as identified by the Education Select Committee in 2019 (see Sobel, 2021a; Headteacher Update, 2019). I asked what would happen if we focused on the strengths and skills of SEND students (Sobel, 2021b). Most recently I asked what might happen if we were to eradicate the silo-working we so often see in SEND (Sobel, 2021c).

This article focuses wholly on money, offering a more sobering tonic to the fraught fiscal tension between head and heart.


It’s not just us

Whereas normally I might give you a raft of references proving just how difficult the SEND funding situation is for schools, I don’t think this is necessary. We all get it. If you don’t, you are probably not a headteacher.

However, the global context is useful because, in case you didn’t realise, it’s not just us. Since the 1994 Salamanca Statement, which argued that “inclusive schools provide an effective education for the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system”, most European countries have been struggling with out-of-control SEND costs.

In fact, the demands being placed on schools to make provision for the inclusion of learners with all kinds of needs in the mainstream classroom has brought about substantial changes to school finance across the world – many countries are facing the same moral conundrum of the imperative versus affordability.

But why is there an exponential increase in demand though? First, there is an increase in identification, understanding, realisation.

Second, reducing infant mortality rates have increased the numbers of young people with SEND. In short, the SEN population has increased and at the same time we know more and are more sensitive to identifying needs.


It’s the economy stupid

This is the key to reshaping this whole, painful discussion. Let us restate this issue in light of the economy and the cost to our society across a lifetime.

For the sake of a simple argument, let’s suggest that SEND increases the demands on today’s education purse by, say, £1bn.

Meanwhile, the long-term impact of ineffective SEND provision results in all the terrible things you and I are familiar with – like increased exclusion, prison sentences, social housing costs, unemployment support and so on. However you calculate this figure, it is obviously many, many times more than our £1bn initial investment.

So now we have a different perspective, the actual question we should be discussing at local authority and national level is completely different to the muddy moral quagmire we are all wading in.

It is not: how can we work with our current SEND budget and make the painful cuts we need to in order to balance the books?
It is not: how can we cut our theoretical £1bn to £900m knowing full well that this will hurt both children and families.

Instead it is: how much extra should we spend now to save the taxpayer and the economy many billions in preventing all of the negative outcomes that a failed education can lead to?

Most of my SEN and inclusion colleagues as well as school leaders and SENCOs are way too entrenched in the daily grind to see this wood for the trees, let alone to find themselves the platform to shout this message far and wide. But strangely, I don’t hear this message at the local authority level nor from our unions (at least not to any great degree). Why not?


A final dagger

Precisely all the characters who got the 2015 SEN Code of Practice so very wrong in the first place are the ones who are rewriting it now – with their same limitations. My fear is that we will end up in even more of a sticky mess in five and then 10 years’ time.

We have even begun to see new characters creeping into the limelight almost like a parody of times gone by – such as the government’s behaviour guru who believes in exclusions and is an advocate of zero-tolerance playing a leading role in the Covid educational “catch-up” response.

Certain charismatic characters parroting hardline, non-inclusive approaches will not salvage our long-term economic cost.


Some hope?

The purpose of this reflective piece is to acknowledge the dirty truth that SEN and inclusion are draining every school budget and local authorities are drowning.

There is a nefarious breed of new hardline approaches to inclusion that include zero-tolerance and that I think are a short-term reaction to the problems which inclusion can challenge us with.

I have suggested one simple point: the only real meaningful argument is not the moral one that you may well feel in your heart, but the long-term economic point that makes inclusion a necessity not a choice.

The practical twist for you and your school? There’s really not much for me to offer in this piece I am afraid. I think you could write to your MP and councillors and make this precise point: “Give me the money to set these children on the right path and give them the opportunity to not only avoid being a burden on the economy but to actually contribute to it. An additional few hundred thousand pounds is a small price to pay for that.”

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for Headteacher Update via http://bit.ly/htu-sobel

Further information & resources

  • Education Select Committee: Special education needs and disabilities, October 2019: https://bit.ly/3mQRzIF
  • Headteacher Update: Families seeking SEND support left exhausted by ‘adversarial and bureaucratic’ system, October 2019: https://bit.ly/2L2ktlB
  • Sobel: SENCOs under siege, Headteacher Update, February 2021a: https://bit.ly/3dMtBdE
  • Sobel: What if we focused on the strengths of our SEN students? Headteacher Update, May 2021b: https://bit.ly/3tgBTPf
  • Sobel: How can we radically shift the way we ‘do’ SEN? Headteacher Update, September 2021c: https://bit.ly/3n8bxzl


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