Needs of children with SEND not being met, warns National Audit Office

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The report by the spending watchdog raises ‘significant’ concerns that many pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are not being supported effectively.

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According to the report, local authorities are increasingly overspending their budgets for children with high needs

According to the report, published today, while some children with SEND are receiving high-quality support, many others are not getting the help they should. At the same time, local authorities are coming under growing financial pressure as the demand for supporting school pupils with the greatest needs rises.

The report was produced ahead of the announcement by the Government last week of a new major review into support available for children with SEND and how it can be improved, including looking at the ‘postcode lottery’ of support.

According to the report, while the DfE has increased school funding, the numbers of pupils identified as having the greatest needs rose 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 for those without education, health and care (EHC) plans.

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It finds that local authorities are increasingly overspending their budgets for children with high needs, primarily driven by a rise in the number of pupils attending special rather than mainstream schools. 

To manage this overspend, 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 more than 86 per cent in the last four years. The NAO warns that this is not a financially sustainable approach and says that the DfE needs to act urgently to secure the improvements in quality and sustainability that are needed to achieve value for money. 

Within the report, the NAO also accuses the Department for Education (DfE) for not fully assessing the likely financial consequences of the 2014 SEND reforms. It claims that the department expected the benefits and savings would significantly outweigh the costs of moving to the new system and the move to more collaborative working would lead to cost savings. But, it did not ‘quantify’ these or validate its assumptions before implementing changes.

For example, the NAO says that the DfE expected fewer challenges to local authorities’ decisions about support and that these could be resolved through mediation. However, the number of cases being taken to tribunals increased.

Other issues highlighted in the report include:  

  • Concern among the sector that 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.
  • Having high numbers of children with SEND can act as a barrier for mainstream schools as it may appear they are performing less well.
  • Short Ofsted inspections of ‘good’ mainstream schools are not designed to routinely comment on SEND provision, so provide limited assurance of its quality.
  • The consistency of support for SEND pupils across the country.

Recommendations

The report concludes by making a number of recommendations. One recommendation is for  the DfE to 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 if it is affordable.

It also recommends that the DfE develop better measure of the effectiveness of SEND support in preparing pupils for their adult lives, and for changes to funding and accountability arrangements to be made to encourage and support mainstream schools to be more inclusive.

The report, ‘Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England’, is based upon visits to four local authority areas in England, analysis of Ofsted reports, data on finance and children with SEND, a review of published and unpublished information from the DfE, interviews and responses to a NAO consultation. 

Comments

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.’

Responding to the NAO report, Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts committee, said, ‘It is vital that children with special educational needs and disabilities have the support they need at school for them to achieve their ambitions and lead fulfilling lives.

‘Yet there are significant concerns that many pupils are not being supported effectively and the NAO’s report finds that based on current trends, the system is not financially sustainable.  

‘The Government must urgently review whether the current system is affordable and ensure that every child receives the support they deserve.’

Dame Christine Lenehan, director of the Council for Disabled Children (part of the National Children’s Bureau), said, ‘The National Audit Office has provided stark evidence of the growing numbers of children with complex needs and EHCPs. It is also clear that funding has not risen to meet these children’s needs, placing intolerable strain on school and local authority budgets. Even the extra cash promised for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) in the education spending settlement will be insufficient to match the scale of the challenge.

‘But the noise about money in the system is drowning out the need for a clear, inclusive vision of education which fully meets the needs of children wherever they are educated.

‘In particular, pressure on special schools is leaving many with very limited aspirations for the children they look after. And hard-pressed mainstream schools look to strict behaviour policies to solve the problems of children that often have their root in impairment, mental health or deprivation.’

Joint chair of the National Education Union (NEU) Kevin Courtney said, ‘This report makes clear the challenges facing schools and local authorities in their efforts to give the best possible support to SEND pupils.

‘It is plain to anyone working in education that the levels of funding for SEND pupils are inadequate. Even after last week’s announcement of £700m more, schools are still £1bn short of what is needed.

‘Children have one chance in education, and through dithering the Government is falling them.’

Labour's shadow minister for children, Steve Reed MP, said, 'No country that loves its children would treat them like this. Instead of cutting taxes for the rich, the Government should invest in properly supporting children with disabilities.'

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said, 'The picture facing schools supporting children with special educational needs is bleak. Not only are school budgets at breaking point, there have been severe cuts to local authority health and social care provision. Schools and councils are left struggling to meet the needs of our most vulnerable pupils.'

Ian Noon, chief policy advisor at the National Deaf Children's Society, said, 'This report is yet more evidence of the shocking failure of the SEND system to meet the needs of disabled children.

'Make no mistake, previous Governments have neglected children with SEND. The new Government has now announced another review, as well as £700 million extra for special needs education. It’s vital that this is now translated into urgent action so that money gets to the frontline, and to those who desperately need it, as quickly as possible.'

Government response

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'Helping all children and young people reach their potential is one of the core aims of this Government, including those with special educational needs. That is why the Prime Minister has committed to providing an extra £700 million next year to make sure these children get an education that helps them develop and thrive as adults.

'We have improved special educational needs support to put families at the heart of the system and give them better choice in their children's education, whether in mainstream or special school. Last week we launched a review of these reforms, to make sure every child, everywhere, gets an education that prepares them for success.'

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