According to early years trainer Kathryn Stinton, a growing number of nurseries and childminders are facing difficulties obtaining funding from their local authority to pay for additional support for children with emerging and identified SEND. This includes funding for children with and without Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans.
In extreme cases, some settings are having to turn children with SEND away because the settings are unable to obtain funding from their local authority and can't afford to provide the support themselves.
This means some children are potentially missing out on the free 15 hours of childcare they are entitled to, says Ms Stinton, who has launched a campaign encouraging affected providers and parents to contact the Department for Education and their local MP about their experiences.
Meanwhile, other providers are making provisions with existing employees, asking parents to pay extra, or paying for additional staff, specialist training or resources with their own budget.
At one nursery in the east of England, staff are struggling to care for a two-year-old with severe additional needs along with the other children in the setting as they have been told the child is not entitled to a SEND premium until he turns three.
The process of securing funding
For the providers that do manage to obtain funding from their local authority, Ms Stinton says they often have to 'jump through hoops', the process can be slow, the money is rarely enough for the total number of hours children attend a setting - often, funding covers just the 15 free hours - and the funding may only be temporary. Some providers have to reapply for the funding every term.
According to one nursery manager who works for the Pre-School Learning Alliance (PLA), it can take up to eight weeks to secure extra funding for a child with SEND who needs one-to-one support, even if they already have an EHC plan.
The nursery manager, who has four children in her care with SEND, says that to secure funding from the local authority she has to carry out a six-week assessment of the child ahead of the area special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO), who she says is fantastic, coming in. Then they, and the child's parents, are required to fill in lots of paperwork before a decision about funding is made by a panel.
Even when they get the funding, they still have to go through the recruitment process to hire a new member of staff to provide support and wait for their DBS check to come back.
Sue Clifford, who runs a not-for-profit pre-school, says her pre-school is only able to receive funding for a child once they have an EHC plan, which takes a year to get, on average, and by this time most children have left the setting.
In one local authority, Birmingham, providers have been told by the city council that as of the next financial year the Inclusion Support for Early Years (ISEY) funding is likely to be reduced, and applications for new children will not be accepted. Children with SEND currently in receipt of funding will continue to receive it.
The proposed move forms part of Birmingham City Council's budget reforms. Birmingham City Council declined to comment.
Ms Stinton, a former area SENCO, said, 'As a trainer, I'm in the privileged position of hearing from providers of early years settings in a range of local authorities, and it appears it is becoming more difficult for these providers to meet the needs of children with SEND.
'Not all children with SEND will need additional support, but many do and at the moment there is no clear accountability as to who is ultimately responsible for funding this when the child doesn't have an EHC plan. This is because the updated SEND Code of Practice fails to put the onus for funding on local authorities.'
She added, 'Settings feel abandoned and torn as they don't feel they have the expertise to care for children with SEND or the ability to increase ratios, but don't want to turn children away.'
Local authority support
Contributing to this is the lack of local authority support, including the reduction in or removal of area SENCOs and early years advisors, claims Ms Stinton.
Stefanie Walbyoff, the PLA's operations manager, says the removal of a local authority's early years consultant has meant one of the PLA's member settings has been unable to apply for funding for a child diagnosed with autism or secure an EHC needs assessment.
As the child requires one-to-one support, a member of staff at the setting shadows the child. But Ms Walbyoff says this impacts on the other children and will not be possible for much longer.
Similarly, a nursery manager in the north of England said she is receiving mixed messages from her local authority about whether or not she can claim funding for a two-year-old with visual impairments, who has an EHC plan in the setting's care.
While the child does not require one-to-one support, she needs extra help, including walking with a frame.
Findings from a PLA survey of member settings across the country back up the experiences of other providers. Alliance members also highlighted issues with SEND funding panels, which they said are almost always made up of school representatives, with little or no early years representation. The PLA is expected to publish the full results of the survey in April.
A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'We know that the amount of funding received by nurseries varies from council to council, with some not passing on as much as they can. We have made clear that this is not acceptable, and that councils should be passing on as much funding as possible to providers.
'We have also published a benchmarking tool so providers can see how funding works in their area - how much money councils keep, and how much makes its way to the front line.'
CASE STUDY: A PARENT'S VIEW
Securing local authority funding for the entire time her son attends nursery has proved problematic for one parent of a three-year-old with quadriplegic cerebral palsy.
The three-year-old, who was born prematurely, developed quadriplegic cerebral palsy following a brain injury.
Because of this, he requires specialist equipment - a supportive chair and standing frame. He is unable to roll onto his front, sit independently for more than a few seconds, stand or walk. But his mother says his engagement and understanding of the world is excellent.
While the three-year-old has recently had a statement of special educational needs agreed, and attends nursery on a full-time basis, the local authority will only provide funding to cover the free hours. The reason given by the local authority for this is that it doesn't expect a child to attend nursery for more than 15 hours a week.
However, the nursery, which the three-year-old has attended since he was 14 months old, has agreed to pay for the additional, one-on-one, support for the entire time he attends the setting out of its own budget.
Without this, his mother says that either she or her partner would have had to give up work and would have lost their home because her son would be unable to access the EYFS without one-to-one support.