New Budget funds for SEND capital spending. But how did LAs spend previous cash? We checked…

This post contains original research. If you would like to use this, please get in touch.

Yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced his autumn Budget. He also introduced the Spending Review – a document that sets out what the government will spend money on over the next three years.

One of his Spending Review announcements – leaked to the press on Monday – was a pledge to invest £2.6 billion for children with special educational needs and disabilities in England. What does this mean, when will the money arrive, and which parts of SEND will benefit?

Capital Spending - what it is and isn't

In the Spending Review 2021 plan, the government pledged:

“£2.6 billion over the SR21 period [2022-2025] for new school places for children with SEND in England, more than tripling current capital funding levels to over £900 million by 2024-25. Providing sufficient high-quality places that are suitable for a range of needs will help support the most vulnerable children, so that no one is left behind.”

Autumn budget and spending review 2021, HM Government

The leaks that surrounded yesterday’s announcement suggest that this money is intended to create at least 30,000 new school places for children with SEND. 

First things first: this is capital funding. Capital funding helps pay for new schools, new school buildings, and repairs to old buildings. It also helps pay for fixtures, fittings, and kit – in the world of SEND, this can include things like changing hoists, accessible entrances, acoustic treatment, creation of nurture spaces, and adapted play areas. 

What this funding isn’t, is revenue funding. Revenue funding pays the wages of teachers, teaching assistants, specialist support staff, and some therapists. Revenue funding pays for the day-to-day costs of running schools, including the costs of SEND provision.

So what we’ve got here is a big increase in capital funding for SEND - starting in April 2022, and finishing in March 2025. Assuming that it’s spread evenly, it’ll be more than ten times the amount of SEND capital funding doled out in 2018, and nearly three times the amount doled out this year.

And there are acute capacity shortages, particularly in the special school sector. Across the country, there are probably thousands, possibly tens of thousands of pupils with SEND waiting in mainstream and elsewhere for a special school place to become available. Places like BristolCentral BedfordshireCumbria, and Hertfordshire.

So this is a fantastic result, right? Hopefully, yes. But there’s a potential sting in the tail.

"These people are key to the ‘high-quality’ places that the government wants to add – but their wages won’t be paid from this £2.6 billion."

Matt Keer

Buildings are great – but what about SEND provision?

Ultimately, welcome as they are, shiny new buildings and equipment don’t educate or train children and young people with SEND. People do that – teachers, teaching assistants, therapists, and others behind the scenes. 

These people are key to the ‘high-quality’ places that the government wants to add – but their wages won’t be paid from this £2.6 billion.

Staff are funded out of a different pot of money – and that’s likely to mean trouble. In most local authorities around the country, the funding pot that pays for most staff in specialist provision is the High Needs Block of the Dedicated Schools Grant. And that funding pot is currently in meltdown, despite two years of hefty increases.

The Chancellor’s statement splashed on SEND capital funding – but said nothing specific about funding for SEND provision. Overall, funding for schools will keep rising, but in real terms it’ll only reach the funding levels that existed back in 2010. 

We know that the High Needs Block – the part of the schools budget that funds high-needs SEND – will grow by £780m next year, roughly a 9% increase. After 2022-23, it’s anyone’s guess.

It’s good to have new school buildings and equipment. But if you can’t afford enough staff to run them properly, then your bigger, shinier provision stands far, far less chance of meeting kids’ needs of delivering the ‘high quality’ places that the government say they want.

If you’re investing capital funding to open a new special school or mainstream SEND unit, but you can’t afford enough staff to run it, then you are on a hiding to nothing. And so are the kids you’re trying to support.

And there are other gaps here. This £2.6 billion will go some way – hopefully a long way – to improving facilities that disabled children use in schools. But by itself, it won’t and can’t address the yawning shortfalls in health and social care support that disabled children and their families suffer from. 

Will this new SEND capital funding be spent well?

We don’t yet know exactly how the £2.6 billion will be doled out.

However, it’s likely to be distributed in a similar way to previous SEND grants. The Department for Education (DfE) will probably dish it out to local authorities, who will then decide how to spend it.

That might sound like a recipe for disaster. We’ve previously looked at how LAs used the money the DfE gave them to implement the 2014 SEND reforms. Councils did a bad job with those grants, with huge sums spent on temp agencies, consultants, and tribunal lawyers. 

That wasn’t pretty. But this time around, things are likely to be different.

The DfE has handed out SEND capital grants before. Over the last few financial years, it's given two separate capital grants for high-needs SEND. 

The DfE didn’t ringfence these two grants– but they did instruct LAs to tell them how they intended to spend it, and to show evidence of how LAs had consulted with families and education providers. 

I asked local authorities how they’d used their £665m in SPCF & HNPCA grant money. Here’s what I learned…

Was previous SEND capital grants well spent or wasted? Matt's research

Using LA data, I was able to track what’s happened to £508m of the £665m of combined SPCF & HNPCA grant money. That’s about three-quarters of it. 

A fairly big chunk - £90m - hasn’t been committed to any specific projects yet. 

But we can see how the rest of it has been used – around £418m of committed Special Provision Capital Fund (SPCF) &

  • In this financial year (2021-22), the DfE is handing out a new £300m capital grant – the High Needs Provision Capital Allocation (HNPCA) grant money. Has it been wasted, or spent well? 
  • In all, I looked at roughly 1,500 separate SEND capital investment projects and proposals funded with help from the SPCF and HNPCA grants. Almost all of them were directly targeted at improving school facilities for children and young people with SEND. 

    The handful of projects that weren’t, were either whole-school projects that will also benefit children with SEND, or they were projects for pupils with SEND that should really have been funded out of another pot.

    So how are LAs using these SEND capital grants? Check and share the infographic below for the figures– but for more detail, read on:

    • Most of the grant money I tracked was used to expand schools - to provide more places for pupils with high-needs SEND. Overall, these two grants will probably have created at least 17,000 more places for pupils between 2018 and 2024. 
    • The rest was mostly used to improve existing provision – rebuilding, relocating or modernising facilities, creating new facilities for pupils with SEND, or installing new equipment to improve accessibility.
    • Most of the SPCF & HNPCA grant money – over 60% of it – was allocated to special schools. If you’re a passionate believer in the importance of mainstream inclusive education, then most of this grant money hasn’t been allocated in ways you like. 
    • About a third of the grant money was allocated to mainstream schools. Most of this chunk went towards creating new mainstream SEND units and resource bases, or towards expanding existing ones.
    • Other parts of the SEND world saw very little of the money—Alternative provision and pupil referral units got about 3% of the grant. Investment in improving capacity and facilities for children and young people with SEND outside schools – for example, pre-school nurseries, and further education – made up just over 1% of it. And almost nothing at all was spent on community facilities that could be used by home educators.

    Was it spent on anything of particular interest?

    From the projects I looked at, there weren’t many that stood out as particularly innovative, but a couple of them looked interesting: 

    • Some of Manchester’s grant money went towards a special school project to set up a café, where sixth form students can get regular work experience and training.

    How was the grant money sprayed by type of need?

    • Most of the money I tracked was allocated to expand or improve provision that’s intended to cater for two groups: autistic children or young people, and those who primarily have social, emotional and mental health needs. Over half of the new places that have been created are in these categories of SEND. 
    • Schools that cater for pupils with severe or profound and multiple learning disabilities received roughly 20% of the grant money.

    However, there are some areas of SEND that have seen almost bugger-all benefit from the DfE’s grant money:

    • Schools that cater for children with primarily physical disabilities got less than 1% of the grant money I tracked. 
    • Similarly, if you’re a parent or an educator of pupils with sensory impairments (deafness, visual impairment, and multi-sensory impairments), then your kids will barely see any benefit from this grant. Around 0.5% of tracked grant money was being spent in this direction. That’s really disappointing, because careful capital investment can transform the experience that kids with physical and sensory disabilities have in school: better acoustics, hoists, changing facilities, remodelled building layouts, all of it can have a big impact.

    So that's good, right?

    Unlike the huge grants that the DfE doled out for SEND reform implementation, there’s no evidence to suggest that councils have blown the DfE’s capital grant money on crap. That’s good to see

    And local authorities are also scraping together funding from other pots. The data I collected showed that LAs are already throwing in at least an extra £700m to improve SEND capital infrastructure, and that’s probably an underestimate.

    Nonetheless, we can’t be 100% sure that this grant money has been spent as well as it could have been locally. Some projects have clearly been delayed by the pandemic, and a few of the more recent ones look aspirational right now. Parents and school inspectors will need to watch closely to ensure that new SEMH provision in mainstream is being used in the best interests of pupils, rather than schools.

    It’s also not straightforward for LAs to set up new schools. They have to work within the government’s free school programme, or persuade academy trusts to step up and fill gaps. Some LA-led special free school proposals have already been turned down, for reasons that make little sense.

    It’s still possible for LAs to expand maintained schools - but sometimes that simply can’t be done, particularly when school sites can’t be expanded. 

    This has had a big effect on the way that that the two previous SEND grants have been used. About 1,800 of the new places created for SEND pupils using the SPCF and HNPCA grants are in ‘satellite’ provision – sites that are located on a separate site from the main school. In most cases, that’s because there isn’t enough space on the main site to build new facilities. 

    It’s hard to see how the increased use of satellite facilities makes school life more inclusive – and when school sites are located miles apart from each other, it also makes it far harder to run schools well.

    This could end up being a real problem when the £2.6 billion of new SEND capital grant funding enters the system in April next year. If there’s no space to build new facilities on existing school sites, and if the process of setting up new SEND schools isn’t up to the job, then LAs will not be able to spend this money as well as they could – and children and young people with SEND will be less likely to get the “high-quality” places that this grant is supposed to provide.

    The SEND Capital Grant infographic

    You are welcome to download and share this infographic on social media - please tag us too! If you want to use it of any of the research above for any other projects, please get in touch. You can also download an accessible version of the infographic as a PDF here.

    Infographic - use the PDF for accessible purposes
    © Special Needs Jungle. Click to enlarge

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    Matt Keer

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