Delivering on capital cash: How have councils spent £2.6 billion of government SEND funding?

The SEND system is not in a happy place in 2024. Central and local government have plans to fix it. But most of these plans involve altering, manipulating or suppressing what they call ‘demand’ for specialist SEND support. The further people sit from the consequences of failure, the more likely they are to call this ‘demand.’ People who are directly affected by this failure, such as those who care for, or directly support, individual children and young people with SEND, tend to call it what it is: need.

In 2023, SNJ spent a fair bit of time looking at what government plans to do about SEND ‘demand.’ But the government is trying to do something about ‘supply’ too, and they’ve put billions of pounds towards increasing the availability of specialist SEND support. Let’s take a look at how it’s working out.

The High Needs Provision Capital Allocation and what it’s for

In late 2021, the government announced it was to allocate £2.6 billion to create tens of thousands of new specialist education places for children and young people with SEND. This £2.6bn is being doled out by the Department for Education (DfE) as a capital funding grant to local authorities; it’s called the High Needs Provision Capital Allocation (HNPCA) grant.

The HNPCA grant is being doled out over three financial years, from April 2022 to March 2025. By the start of 2024, £1.55 billion had been distributed to local authorities. The remainder will be handed over in the 2024-25 financial year. You can find out how much your local authority has been given here.

What are local authorities supposed to do with the HNPCA grant money? LAs are financially accountable to the DfE for the use of this grant, but the conditions of grant are loose.

In general, the DfE expects LAs to deploy this grant for capital projects – things like buildings, equipment, and specialist facilities – rather than to support revenue spending on teaching staff, therapists, or training. The DfE’s grant guidance to LAs says that they expect the grant “to deliver new places and improve existing provision for children and young people with SEND, particularly those with more complex needs, and for those pupils who require alternative provision.”

It’s largely up to LAs how they spend it, but the DfE wants to see the HNPCA primarily spent on creating or improving placements for children with EHCPs, and primarily spent in schools, rather than colleges or wider post-16 provision. The DfE has asked LAs to prioritise the creation of mainstream places rather than in special schools and to make new placements suitable for a wider range of special educational needs.

The DfE describes HNPCA as “a transformational investment in new High Needs provision” – they expect it “to help deliver tens of thousands of new places, supporting learning in both mainstream and special provision.”

Will it really be transformational? No. Will it help deliver tens of thousands of new places? Yes.

Deciphering the data

We’ve taken a look at the data that LAs have to send the DfE each year to show how they’re using their HNPCA grant money. Although the DfE strongly encourages LAs to publish this data, very few do. So we asked for the data via Freedom of Information requests.

Most LAs were happy to share it, although a few resisted. LAs are supposed to consult locally about their use of the grant: many definitely did, some were less forthcoming, and others appear to have been less than candid about the consultation they actually carried out.

In all, we collected evidence of over 1,200 line-items of capital spending across 122 local authorities. So, what does this look like? Check the infographic further down for an easy guide, but read on for more.

How’s the grant being used?

The DfE wants to see the HNPCA grant creating tens of thousands of new placements for children and young people with SEND. The good news is the data shows they are on track to see this happen.

HNPCA grant spending in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 financial years will help to create at least 20,000 new places for children and young people with SEND over the next four years. The HNPCA grant is also being used to maintain and renovate existing facilities, and this will help sustain or repurpose at least 9,000 existing specialist places.

Most of the 20,000 new places we tracked aren’t available yet. LAs reported that around 8,000 of them had been completed by November 2023; the rest will become available over a longer period, from September 2024 through to 2026 and beyond. On average, the HNPCA grant will help to add around 4,000 new specialist placements per year over the next few years.

The not-so-good news for inclusion: The DfE wanted to see LAs prioritise the creation of new places in mainstream schools. That’s not happening. Over two-thirds of the new places are being created in special schools – either by expanding existing special schools, or helping to create places in new special schools.

  • About a quarter of the new places are being created in mainstream schools.
  • Most of these are being created as new SEN units or resource bases.
  • The HNPCA grant will help to create at least 700 new places in the alternative provision and pupil referral unit sector – roughly 3% of the total.
  • The further education and wider post-16 sector will see very little benefit from the HNPCA grant money. The projects we tracked will create just 160 places for young people with SEND in FE colleges – less than 1% of the total.

What needs are being met by the new investment?

Most of the new placements are being created to meet the needs of either autistic pupils, or of pupils who have severe, profound, or multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) as their primary need. The HNPCA grant will also help to create places for over 3,700 pupils who have social, emotional or mental health (SEMH) as their primary need. However, LAs reported that most of the new places are intended to meet more than one type of special educational need.

If you’re a parent or a teacher of a child with physical disabilities or sensory impairments, or with a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) like dyslexia, then it’s very unlikely you’ll see much benefit from the investment. From this data, it looks like the HNPCA grant will create just 31 new places for deaf children over the next few years, 25 new places for children with physical disabilities, and a pitiful eight places for children who have visual impairment as their primary need.

Some children and young people with physical disabilities or sensory impairments are benefitting from grant spending in other ways – individual accessibility improvement projects, for example – but we saw very few examples of this in the data we collected.

Also on SNJ: No targets for SEND cuts? Tell us your experiences

What sort of provision is being created?

As mentioned, LAs are largely free to spend the HNPCA capital grant as they see fit, and some of them have used it in innovative ways. For example, Redbridge is creating a satellite ‘middle school’ provision to help autistic pupils transition between primary and secondary school phases. Blackpool and Brent are putting HNPCA grant money towards improving facilities to support specific vocational projects for young people with SEND.

The use of ‘satellite’ provision—where new placements are located on a completely different site to the main school—is also popular. We estimate that roughly one in five new placements funded with help from the HNPCA grant will be on a satellite site.

Occasionally, the satellite placements appear to be part of a deliberate strategy to bring special school provision and expertise onto mainstream school sites. More frequently, the satellite provision is simply being rolled out because there just isn’t physical space to fit more classrooms onto an existing school site.

It’s depressing to see how much of this is being delivered through temporary low-cost work. Hundreds of these new places will be created in modular units, Portakabins, or by refurbishing other structures that are very poorly suited to meeting the needs of children and young people with SEND. It’s extremely difficult to manage the sensory environment of buildings like these.

We also saw no evidence to suggest that the HNPCA grant is funding any rollout of air filtration systems, or other investment to protect children and young people with SEND from infectious disease in the classroom. But when all’s said and told, the HNPCA grant will succeed in meeting the DfE’s headline ambition – creating tens of thousands of new placements for children and young people with SEND.

Challenges remain—who’s staffing the schools?

New and improved buildings and equipment are really important. They’re necessary, but they’re not sufficient. Shiny buildings and gleaming new equipment don’t educate or train young people with SEND. We need trained, expert people do that – and the £2.6 billion HNPCA grant won’t pay for any of them. If local authorities, schools and colleges can’t afford enough staff for the new, expanded or improved settings, they stand far, far less chance of meeting more kids’ needs – or of delivering the high-quality places the government wants.

You can make big, impressive-looking capital investment in buildings and kit and get local worthies to snip ribbons. But unless it’s accompanied by a similarly big investment in human capital – increasing the supply of specialist teachers and therapists, improving the skills of mainstream teachers, and making far, far better use of parental expertise – then you’re on to a hiding to nothing. And efforts to do even some of that are lagging way, way behind.

Infographic

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Matt Keer
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