SEND Improvement Plan: The pupils being left behind

Written by: Marijke Miles | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What is going wrong with the SEND system according to our primary school leaders? And what do they think of the government’s plan to improve things? Marijke Miles takes a look at the provisions within the new SEND Improvement Plan

The dust is now settling following the government’s publication of its improvement plan for children with SEND (DfE, 2023; Headteacher Update, 2023). School leaders are contemplating whether the long-awaited plan can fix a dysfunctional system that is letting down many children with SEND and their families.

School and local authority do everything they can while supporting children and families negotiating this failing system. This puts huge strain on our wellbeing, but we feel enormous empathy for parents fighting to get their children the right support.

What is going wrong?

In a nutshell, schools and councils are facing a perfect storm of growing demand to support children with SEND combined with shortages of funding, capacity, and expertise. Support is largely dictated by the funding available rather than children’s needs.

For children with a diagnosed need, schools should receive notional funding per-pupil, per-year of £6,000 for mainstream pupils and £10,000 for children in special schools. These figures have remained static since 2013, despite inflation. When additional money is needed this should be provided by local authorities, but most are struggling following a decade of government cuts compounded by rising costs.

Schools only receive funding for a child’s primary need and local funding formulas mean support for pupils differs depending on their postcode.

One primary school leader told me: “Councils are telling schools they can’t provide extra money. The government says, ‘be more efficient’, but we were forced to cut the teaching assistants we need more than ever. We had a £750,000 deficit because I tried to provide proper support.”

Another issue is the postcode lottery in access to suitable places and specialist support, both in mainstream and special schools.

There is a big shortfall in special school provision and the Department for Education has belatedly launched a capacity audit because it has no idea how many places there are, where they are or how many new ones are needed.

More pupils with complex SEND have to remain in mainstream schools which may not have the resources or expertise to ensure they get the support they need. One special school head told me he could offer just eight reception places despite having received more than double that number of applications.

Another primary head revealed 10 of the 60 pupils in reception had Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) due to severe needs: “They should really have been in specialist provision, but we ended up having to use a small office as an autism unit. It wasn’t ideal.”

Specialist staff

Many mainstream schools nevertheless do an admirable job, but the current system of accountability neither encourages nor rewards this. That needs to change. Both mainstream and special schools are hampered in many areas by a shortage of specialist staff and training.

Teachers often lack the help they need to support children with SEND. SENCOs often combine this remit with other roles and there are shortages of specialists like speech and language therapists and educational psychologists.

This provision should be the responsibility of health and social care, but its funding has also been slashed, forcing schools to fill gaps with already-stretched budgets. If they cannot, pupils miss out.

The plan envisages employing more speech and language therapists, but there is no recognition of how this, or the joint education and social care workforce plan and additional early years training will be funded.

One impact of funding shortages and a lack of specialists is that children miss out on early intervention, meaning delays to identifying needs and implementing support. Local authority “portage” services to support pre-nursery children have been eroded. Cuts to area SENCOs in many places mean fewer specialists are visiting nurseries.

Schools have reception starters who clearly need support but this has not been identified. Timely identification of children’s additional needs is also lacking for older children. As one special school leader put it: “Pupils who might not have needed an EHCP end up with one because there was no earlier intervention.”

No new problems

Improving a broken system was never going to be easy, but these problems are not new. If the challenges are well-defined, the solutions in the improvement plan are not. On the surface, the focus upon early intervention, increasing the specialist workforce, improving the EHCP process, creating national standards, and boosting special school capacity, appear positive.

However, the plan lacks detail, urgency and ambition. It is unclear whether enough money will be provided to transform not just SEND education, but also health and social care input so that support for pupils is dictated by their needs, not the limited resources available.

Without this, councils will continue raising thresholds for support or overspending. The sums just aren’t there in the plan.

While there can be value in piloting approaches, action and investment is urgently needed so children are not left behind.

Wellbeing and mental health is a priority for those with SEND, but the government’s mental health support teams will still only reach 45% of pupils next year. It seems to be asking for more from professionals already stretched to breaking point rather than taking responsibility for resolving fundamental systemic problems.

Even in a best-case scenario, nothing will change for most pupils for years. Without significant investment and a long-term workforce strategy, many pupils will continue to be failed.

  • Marijke Miles is chair of the SEND Council at the National Association of Head Teachers.

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