The Department for Education (DfE) received another critical report relating to support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (‘SEND’) last week, this time from the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC). With many professionals saying the sector is in deep crisis, demands are growing for an urgent plan containing a new approach, more detail and fresh thinking.

In September 2019, the DfE promised a review of current provision. However, the December 2019 election manifesto included little on SEND provision because the focus was on Brexit. The current focus in the context of the Coronavirus Act 2020 is keeping services afloat and the relaxation of timescales. There was some extra money in the Budget for SEND, but the impact of the Budget will be lost under the local authority response to Coronavirus.

The DfE has admitted that many families are struggling following the introduction of education, health and care plans (EHCPs) in 2014. There has been a sharp increase in the number of children and young people with SEND in England, with local authorities and schools complaining of funding shortages, and families of long delays in receiving assessments and support.

There are more than 1.3 million school-age pupils with SEND, i.e. almost 15% of all school pupils. Of those, around one million pupils are receiving SEND support and 270,000 have an EHCP (January 2019). 50% of high needs facilities that OFSTED and the CQC inspected have been assessed as underperforming (July 2019).

Meanwhile, high needs funding has risen significantly, from £5.66bn in 2014-15 to £6.85bn in 2020-21, an increase of 21% in real terms. In 2017-2018, 81.3% of local authorities overspent their high needs budget. Local authorities have funded overspending by using dedicated schools grant (DSG) reserves. These reserves have fallen by 86.5% since 2014-2015.

With no indication of when any further reforms, changes or extra funding might materialise, frustration in the sector is building.

The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has promised to “take stock” of the system and will, no doubt, be looking closely at a number of other recent reports and reviews, not only from PAC but also the Education Select Committee, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the National Audit Office:

Commons’ Public Accounts Committee (May 2020):
  • “We remain to be convinced that the Department has sufficient grip on what needs to be done to tackle the growing pressures on the SEND system… The Department has given few details about the review and has not indicated when it will be completed”
  • “The Department should, as a matter of urgency, complete and publish its SEND review”
Commons’ Education Select Committee key conclusions (October 2019):
  • “The 2014 reforms have resulted in confusion, unlawful practice, bureaucratic nightmares, buck-passing, lack of accountability, strained resources, adversarial experiences and dashed hopes …”
  • “Unless there is a culture change, within schools, local authorities and Government, any additional funding will be wasted and make little difference …”
  • “A more rigorous inspection framework is needed, with clear consequences for failure and parents able to report directly to central government when local authorities fail to follow statutory processes …”
Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman: Not Going to Plan? (October 2019)
  • LGSCO described the SEND system as being in a state of crisis. In 2018-2019, it received 45% more complaints than in 2016-2017 and carried out 80% more detailed investigations of which 87% were upheld
  • Patterns of failure identified include severe delays and excessive barriers in efforts to ration scarce resources. In some cases, it was found that authorities were not reacting to requests for assessment or were introducing additional requirements to trigger an assessment decision
  • Other failings included poor planning around commissioning of pupil placements; poor communication when councils have amended or ceased plans with letting families know; inadequate partnership working between education, health and social care professionals
National Audit Office key recommendations to DfE (September 2019)
  • Complete an evidence-based assessment of funding the SEND system created by the 2014 reforms, and set goals, for 2020-21 onwards to make clear what level of performance constitutes success
  • Review the incentives that encourage and support mainstream schools to be more inclusive in admitting, retaining and meeting the needs of SEND pupils
  • Set out the circumstances under which DfE considers public money should be used to pay for independent provision
  • Work with OFSTED to make inspections of mainstream schools provide more assurance about SEND provision that is easily accessible and clear to parents
Inspection regime

OFSTED and the CQC carry out inspections to assess how well local authorities, health commissioners and other providers are identifying and meeting the needs of children and young people with SEND. The five-year inspection cycle started in 2016 and two thirds of the inspections have been completed.

Half of the areas inspected have been required to submit a written statement of action to the Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman, an indication of significant weaknesses in overall SEND arrangements. Key criticisms have included that joint commissioning is weak and that area leaders lack understanding of the needs and lived experience of children, young people with SEND and their families.

A way forward?

So what can Government do when there is already strong evidence of a system that is malfunctioning and under major financial strain? Rising costs and wider school funding restrictions have put huge pressure on the high needs funding system. Local authorities’ ability to sustain the system with funding from elsewhere is dwindling.

Extra funding alone may not be enough. The reports suggest the problems are more systemic, with support for children and young people with SEND disjointed, inconsistent and hard to obtain.

The most recent report from the Public Accounts Committee has stated clearly the areas that the DfE’s review should include, therefore the next move from the DfE has to be to address these points, which include:

  • a set of actions to “secure the necessary improvements” in support for children with SEND, including timescales within which families will see practical changes
  • an explanation of the evidence to support the DfE’s conclusions and quantified goals to measure success
  • how the DfE will develop a better, evidence-based understanding of why there is so much variation between different groups of children in identifying SEND
  • set out the steps it proposes to take to reduce the number of pupils with SEND who are permanently or temporarily excluded from school
  • considering information other than inspection information to get an assessment of the support for children with SEND
  • working with schools and others regarding funding
  • carrying out a systematic analysis of current and future demand for school places for children with complex needs.

Mr Williamson has promised to “make sure all families get the support they need so every child, young person and their parents feel extremely positive about their future”. Currently, that ambition is looking hard to achieve, when according to some reports by 2021 there will be 2,500 too few places in special schools to meet demand.


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