Bureau of Investigative Journalism finds SEND funding black hole grew by 52% in a year, with one child in a SEND school 412 miles from home

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) is an independent, not-for-profit organisation with a mission to hold power to account. TBIJ have spent the last few months looking into the SEND system. They’ve published an in-depth article today, and their main findings are as follows:

  • As of the end of March 2022, the high-needs SEND funding black hole in England has risen to £1.3bn - an increase of £465m (52%) in a single year before recent central government ‘safety valve’ agreements kicked in.
  • Three in every four local authorities now have SEN funding deficits, some of which have doubled or even tripled in the last 12 months.
  • Some councils are attempting to cut costs by introducing measures that could make it more difficult for children to receive support, or reduce or remove help from those who already have it. These include Derby, Bury, York, Hillingdon, Merton and Kingston.  
  • The number of children in receipt of statutory SEND support is rising sharply in some areas. In Thurrock, Somerset and North Somerset the number of EHC plans increased more than 20% in just twelve months.
  • As capacity gets stretched in both mainstream and specialist state sectors, some councils are becoming more reliant on independent provision, sometimes outside the council area.
  • Lack of local support and increasing complexity of need means some 43,000 children with special needs and/or disabilities in England are placed in schools outside of their home area, with around 3,300 in settings that are an estimated 20 miles or more away from where they live. 
  • Within England, the furthest distance between a child's home local authority and their education setting was an estimated 412 miles (Cornwall to Newcastle).

Some of this – most of it, maybe – will already be familiar to you. What makes TBIJ’s approach different to many other media organisations is that they’re willing to share a lot of the data that they’ve collected with their readers. 

TBIJ want to tool you up with the ability to do your own investigations – so you can set about holding your local organisations to account too. You can find TBIJ’s reporting recipe for their SEND investigation here: we’ve summarised some of the key sources of information they used below.

SEND Funding holes

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism asked England’s 152 local authorities for data on the financial position of their Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) at the end of the 2020-21 financial year, and the forecasted position at the end of the last financial year, 2021-22. 

We covered the DSG in a recent SNJ article on SEND funding. It’s the main source of school funding, supplied by central government to each LA in four blocks. Two of these four blocks account for almost all spending on SEND educational provision.

Around the country, most LAs right now are spending more from their DSG account than they receive from central government – and that’s almost always in the area of high-needs SEND. Central government are pressuring local government to pay back their deficits – which often puts additional pressure on the quality and quantity of available SEND provision.

There are several ways that you can find out more about your council’s DSG position, and what they’re planning to do to balance the books:

  • You can check the data that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism collected in the course of this investigation – it’s here, under the “DSG funding” tab.

If your LA’s DSG account is in deficit, then it has to submit a recovery plan to the DfE: a DSG Deficit Management Plan.

  • Request a copy of this plan from your LA; it’ll give you some idea of how they plan to reduce their deficit, and whether those plans involve choking off support and demand in ways that are not in the best interests of children and young people with SEND

Fourteen local authorities are currently working under a ‘safety valve’ DSG deficit reduction agreement with the Department for Education. You can find details of these ‘safety valve’ plans here. More of these agreements will be signed in the months and years to come. 

  • At a local level, you can ask whether the LA has kept to its ‘safety valve’ agreement commitments. If it has, then how has this affected provision in the area? If your council has not signed up to an agreement yet, will it do so in the future, or is it currently negotiating one?

There’s another local source of information that can sometimes be useful – the Schools Forum. This is a body (mostly consultative, rather than decision-making), that’s made up of representatives from schools and academies. LAs have to provide financial reports to Schools Forum, including data on SEND.

  • You’ll find reports and minutes from Schools Forum meetings on your education-providing council's website.

Out of Council Placements 

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism asked local authorities several questions about their use of SEND transport and about out-of-area placements. You can find the data that TBIJ collected in this spreadsheet. They asked a two-way question: firstly, for each LA, how many children and young people with EHCPs aren’t educated in the LA, but attend a placement outside the council’s borders? Secondly, for each LA, how many pupils and students with an EHCP come from outside the LA’s borders to get their provision?.

Bureau of Investigative Journalism looks at SEND Transport

As part of this investigation, TBIJ also asked about transport: the median distance that pupils and students with EHCPs in each home LA were travelling to out-of-council placements, and the median distance that pupils and students from other LAs were travelling to get to their provision. They also asked how many pupils were being transported on ‘solo’ journeys (by ‘solo’, they mean without any other pupils with SEND on board). 

You can find this data here for most councils – as well as a sheet showing the longest distance between home and out-of-LA placement for pupils, for each LA.

Local Area SEND Inspections

TBIJ have also provided a sheet showing the status of Ofsted / CQC SEND inspections in each local area, as of March 2022. You can find that here. We’ve also updated our own SEND inspections map that shows more basic information, interactive version here, static image without LA names below.

The TBIJ article is well worth a read (The direct link from 5pm is here). And remember, if you poke around the data that TBIJ have collected and shared and you find interesting stuff, please let them--and us--know!

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Matt Keer

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