SEND funding in crisis: Parents demand action

Ministers face nationwide protests over the £536m black hole in SEND funding that is preventing many pupils from getting the support they need. Pete Henshaw, SecEd, reports.

“Everybody thinks that special needs is currently a big mess even if the intention of the Children’s and Families Act was a very good one.”

As thousands of parents took to the streets in protest at SEND funding cuts, the words of Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, seem apt.

Mr Halfon was speaking on May 21 to education ministers Nadhim Zahawi and Nick Gibb as they gave evidence to his committee’s inquiry into the 2014 SEND reforms.

Opening what was the final session of the year-long inquiry, Mr Halfon told the ministers: Almost to a man and woman, everyone who has appeared, everyone who has sent in evidence – no-one thinks the system is working.”

It came nine days before thousands of parents and young people took part in protests at 26 locations across the country as part of the SEND National Crisis campaign. The day – on May 30 – culminated with the delivery of a 15,000-name petition to Downing Street.

The campaigners are angry that the SEND high needs budget has “failed to keep pace with demand”. They are also worried about cuts to children’s centres and to vital support such as teaching assistants in schools.

A campaign statement said that more and more families are “having to fight to get the right provision”. It added:

“Access to appropriate – or sometimes any – education, social care, or health provision is being curtailed by councils and health bodies cutting key services and failing to comply with their legal obligations.”

The 2014 SEND reforms saw the introduction of new 0-25 Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), replacing the system of SEN Statements. A SEND Code of Practice was introduced, parents were given more control of budgets and decision-making for their children, and local authorities were required to produce a Local Offer detailing the available support for SEND.

Government figures show that more than 285,000 children and young people now have an EHCP.

Local authorities in England receive funding through the “high needs block” to fund the support they are legally obliged to provide via the EHCPs. Funding for more moderate SEND, meanwhile, is included in the schools budget. Schools receive a “notional” SEND budget in addition to their basic per-pupil allocation. Where annual costs of SEND support for individual students exceed £10,000, councils are expected to provide a “top-up” for schools.

However, a report by think-tank IPPR North in April found that the funding available for the high needs block has reduced by 17 per cent across England since 2015. Its analysis of Department for Education (DfE) data found that while high needs funding has increased by 11 per cent from 2015/16 to 2018/19, demand has increased by 35 per cent. It means that the amount available through high needs funding for each pupil fell from around £23,000 to around £19,000 during this period.

The National Education Union says that 93 per cent of local authorities are facing SEND funding shortfalls leading to support staff being axed, increased waiting times for assessment and cuts to specialist provision.

The DfE says it has increased high needs funding from £5 billion in 2013 to more than £6 billion in 2018/19.

However, in December it was forced to allocate an additional £350 million after coming under pressure from campaigners, including the Local Government Association which warned last year that councils in England were facing a SEND funding gap of £536 million.

One particular concern is that some children who had SEN Statements have not qualified for EHCPs and are falling through the gaps. The IPPR report states:

“There is considerable variation in the quality of support provided between local areas, especially for those not eligible for an EHCP. This is related to the reductions in funding for SEND support, and for schools and local government more generally.”

The May 30 campaigners meanwhile point to parents who are being denied appropriate support for their children and who are resorting to legal battles to secure EHCPs and proper SEND support.

Parental appeals to the SEND Tribunal have increased by 80 per cent since the reforms began, with parents winning nine in 10 cases according to government figures. Complaints to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman about SEND have also risen by 150 per cent since 2015 with 87 per cent of these being upheld. 

The government is also facing a legal challenge from parents over its approach to SEND funding. A full two-day hearing has been set in the High Court for June 26 and 27.

On top of this, the Education Select Committee’s inquiry findings are due out in the summer, and a study from the National Audit Office on SEND support is due in the autumn.

It means that with the 2020-2023 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) due, alongside this autumn’s Budget, there is now significant pressure on the DfE. Education secretary Damian Hinds acknowledged this at the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers in May, when he unveiled a “call for evidence” on SEND funding.

He said:

“While we have already hugely increased spending in this area, I recognise that providing for additional complexities can put additional pressures on schools. I want to make sure we have the best understanding of how our system for funding children with high needs is operating on the ground – and whether there are improvements we can make.”

The call for evidence asks 28 questions tackling issues including the school funding formula, the notional budget, early help and collaborative approaches. The DfE is also hosting a number of workshops to investigate these issues.

Back at the Education Select Committee, Mr Zahawi responded to the chairman’s remarks with an admission that SEND support was “patchy” and that implementation of the reforms had been “challenging”. On funding, he told the MPs: “There remains a pressure on the system, which is why we have put out a call for evidence as to how the funding is working in schools and whether we can iron out any perverse incentives.”

Both he and Mr Gibb said they would be making the case for more SEND funding: “We understand the pressure,” Mr Gibb added.


Further information
SEND inquiry, Education Select Committee:
Oral Evidence: SEND, May 21, 2019, Education Committee:
Funding for SEND and those who need AP: Call for evidence, DfE, May 2019 (closes July 31):
SEND National Crisis petition & campaign: &
Photo credit: Adobe Stock

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