Research: Cost of Living Crisis having “profound and far-reaching consequences”, increasing SEND needs while forcing cuts to school support budgets 

Amy Skipp, ASK Resesarch, and Jenna Julius, NFER

Over the last few weeks, NFER and ASK Research have published a three-part research series, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, investigating the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on schools.

The research draws on responses from over 2,500 senior leaders and teachers in mainstream and special schools in England to understand the scale of the challenges which schools are facing and the impact that cost-of-living pressures are having. We have been really proud to work together on this project to make sure that we can report across the education sector as a whole, not just mainstream providers.

Our summary here is focusing on the findings relating to special schools and children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). The full report can be found here

1. Levels of SEND have increased

School staff are reporting that the numbers of pupils with SEND and/or behaviour issues have noticeably increased in recent years and that this trend has been amplified by cost-of-living pressures.

“We have seen a significant increase in the number of pupils entering Nursery and Reception with learning and behavioural needs. I have been in education 25 years... we have never experienced anything like what we are going through at present. Whether this is due to the cost of living, or as a result of lockdowns, or both, is hard to say, but our staff are facing challenges we have not faced on this scale.” 

Mainstream senior leader

“SEND children are increasingly more complex, so need more support. Lack of school places in this sector impacts upon this.”

Mainstream senior leader

2. Families of pupils with SEND are being affected by the cost of living crisis and this is having a damaging effect on their children’s ability to learn.

Special schools reported that:

  • 30% had seen an increase in children coming to school hungry
  • 42% had seen an increase in children coming to school without adequate clothing (winter coat or shoes that fit)
  • 23% had seen an increase in pupils coming to school without the resources they need to learn.

It goes without saying that a cold, hungry child who doesn’t have the equipment to learn is not best placed to thrive, engage in learning and fulfil their potential.

These figures were largely in line with findings from mainstream settings with the biggest factor affecting increased need being the level of disadvantage in a school’s pupil population. This means schools serving communities with higher rates of free school meal eligibility have seen the greatest increases in need.

Our findings indicate recent increases in the cost of living are impairing the ability of pupils with additional needs to fully access and experience education. 40% of special school leaders said they’d seen an increase in pupils not having the specialist equipment they need to fully access learning, such as access to wheelchairs/mobility aids, assistive software, change of clothes, self-regulating tools, etc.

A lack of suitable specialist equipment is likely to necessitate school staff providing more support to these pupils than should be needed if they’d been given, or been able to afford, this equipment. For example, a pupil whose wheelchair is broken or not correctly fitted will need more adult help (or be in pain or not able to attend), while pupils without computer communication support will need staff to fulfil this role. Additionally, it means an increased role for school staff at a time when schools’ budgets may be squeezed by other cost-of-living pressures.

3. Support needs of pupils with SEND and their families have increased

Our research also highlights that cost-of-living pressures have also exacerbated existing levels of welfare and well-being needs among pupils – which we reported had already significantly increased during the pandemic.

Indeed, around 40% of pupils in special schools were reported to require additional support related to mental health and general well-being – representing a four percentage point increase over the last year.

Similarly, special schools also reported an increase in the need for welfare and financial support amongst their pupils and families, with around 40% of pupils now needing this extra help. This is significantly higher than the rates for mainstream settings, highlighting the particularly challenging circumstances that special schools are currently facing in supporting pupil needs.

4. Schools are expanding the scale and range of support they have available in school to support both pupils and their households

In response to the high levels of additional needs among pupils, many mainstream and special schools reported providing access to food, travel and afterschool activities and offering uniform exchanges, warm banks, and facilities for washing clothes. While some schools were already providing additional support, many report expanding the range and scale of this support in the last year.

Figure 1 Average percentage of pupils currently taking up the support that schools are offering

5. School costs have gone up leading to cuts - including teaching assistants

Alongside the costs of providing additional support to pupils, schools are also contending with increased electricity costs, alongside higher staffing, transport and food costs as a result of cost-of-living pressures.

In response, most schools are having to cut their costs to try to balance their books. Three-quarters of special school leaders say they are having to reduce spending to allow for increased costs arising due to cost-of-living pressures.

The cuts reported by special school leaders include:

  • 4 in 10 cutting spending on learning resources
  • 3 in 10 are cutting targeted pupils' support
  • 3 in 10 report having to cut their core specialist offer to save money.

The core specialist offer in special schools might sound like ‘nice to haves’ such as the use of a pool, physical activities, or trips to the supermarket, for example – but these are what support the holistic developmental needs of pupils with SEND. For many schools, this will mean they are unable to provide all of the legally required support set out in a child’s Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or SEN support plan shows how serious the financial situation is for them. This highlights that schools are facing impossible trade-offs and making cuts to key parts of their provision in order to balance their budgets.  

In addition, 47% of primaries, 28% of secondaries and 32% of specials report cutting the amount of teaching assistant (TA) support they pay for. We know that TAs provide a lot of the support and differentiated delivery needed by pupils with SEND and play a crucial role in enabling pupils to fully access learning. These cuts are therefore likely to have a big effect on the support provided to pupils with SEND.

Figure 2 The areas of spending schools are making cuts to in response to the increased cost of living

As a result of making these cost reductions, around half of senior leaders across all settings said they thought the increased cost of living pressures had negatively impacted the quality of teaching and learning in their setting. Further, three-quarters (75%) of secondary leaders and almost nine in ten (87 %) primary leaders still said they did not feel they had sufficient budget in the last academic year to fully meet the needs of their pupils with SEND.

Despite making cuts, almost half of primary schools and special schools, at 49% and 48% respectively, reported an in-year deficit for 2022/23, along with 41% of secondary schools. To fund these deficits, the majority of schools report they have used school reserves to cover additional costs incurred due to the increased cost of living. This highlights the scale of the difficulty schools have experienced trying to deliver their provision within budget this financial year.

Schools are only expecting the situation to worsen next year with just under half of mainstream schools and two-fifths of special schools expecting both to have an in-year deficit and needing to make cuts to provision in 2023/24.

Figure 3 Schools overall and in-year budget status by the end of the 2022/23 financial year. Source: NFER survey of 1441 senior leaders: the minimum number of responses given to an individual item was 1209

Staff are feeling the pressure too

School staff are not only on the front line in meeting the impacts of cost-of-living pressures on pupils and families, but they are personally affected by cost-of-living pressures too. We found that teachers, like the wider British population, are having to make lifestyle and spending changes in response to financial pressures. Some teachers also reported how cost-of-living pressures have meant they can’t afford to pay for items they need to help pupils or support teaching and learning (which previously they might have done, like providing materials for specific activities or creating differentiated learning resources etc).

Salaries in schools have not remained competitive enough to attract and retain staff. This has exacerbated existing workforce recruitment and retention challenges. For example, 45% of secondary and special schools and 34% of primary schools reported that the salaries they were able to offer were the single biggest barrier to recruiting TAs.

Leaders also flagged that increasing numbers of TAs are taking on additional jobs to supplement their income. In special schools, almost half of senior leaders said their TAs were having to take second or third jobs alongside their TA role. Some TAs were leaving altogether for better-paid roles in other sectors, such as care, hospitality, and retail, that offer similar flexibility. Schools were also facing issues with finding staff with suitable skills and experience to meet the needs of their pupils.

Special schools are finding recruitment particularly difficult. 87% report difficulty recruiting teaching assistants, compared to 84% of primaries and 85% of secondaries. When it comes to employing other support staff, 90% of special schools reported difficulty recruitment, compared to 80% of primaries and 75% of secondaries.

We point out in the report:

“The implications of the recruitment difficulties that special schools are experiencing is particularly concerning given the pupil ratios these schools tend to require and the additional responsibilities these staff members often have for supporting pupils and meeting their needs while in school. The lack of support staff contributes to the reduction in the core specialist school offer – therapy pools cannot operate if there is no cleaner; interventions for social and communication development cannot happen if there are no staff to deliver them; even handling and personal care cannot take place unless suitable adults are available.”

More pressure on fewer people means SEND pupils suffer

Recruitment challenges for TAs in mainstream settings is also likely to be affecting pupils with SEND and those who would most benefit from tailored interventions, given that this is a large part of how we know TAs are used in schools—see our research on this here  

Furthermore, the cost-saving measures taken by schools in response to cost-of-living increases have intensified pressures on their staff and appear to be affecting staff retention. Dealing with increased pupil needs, with less resources and support, for a salary not as attractive as other professions, has meant that cost-of-living pressures have exacerbated existing staff retention challenges.

Our research also found the percentage of senior leaders and teachers considering leaving the profession has returned to 2019 levels, with between a quarter and a third thinking of leaving in the next year. In comparison, more leaders and teachers stayed in the profession during the Covid-19 pandemic. Across school types, leaders in special schools were most likely to report considering leaving the profession this academic year at 32%. This risks leading to a substantial loss of understanding and experience from the specialist sector – and risks having long-lasting impacts on the sector.

The Recommendations from our research

Our research highlights the profound and far-reaching consequences which cost of living pressures risk having on young people’s lives, particularly for pupils in special schools and pupils with SEND in mainstream settings. In light of our findings, we make the following recommendations:

  1. The Government should extend the current eligibility for free school meals. At the absolute minimum, this should involve uprating the income threshold for eligibility to reflect inflationary pressures since 2018/19.
  2. In the short term, schools need greater financial support to address pupils’ pressing well-being and welfare needs, alongside meeting the additional direct costs (e.g., energy and school meal costs) associated with the increased cost of living.
  3. In the short term, families should be provided with additional support, which might include revisiting current levels of welfare support for families and/or additional cost of living payments.
  4. In the medium term, ensuring increased capacity and responsiveness of children and young people's mental health services (CYPMHS) and other services around families is needed to ensure that pupils can access the appropriate support and specialist services in a timely manner, rather than schools having to step in to fill those gaps in support.
  5. In the short term, schools need greater financial support to address pupils’ pressing well-being and welfare needs, alongside meeting the additional direct costs (e.g., energy and school meal costs) associated with the increased cost of living.
  6. While the SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan already sets out next steps for improving provision for pupils with additional needs, it should be prioritised and accelerated to ensure that schools and pupils get access to the urgent help they require as soon as possible.
  7. The Government should prioritise the refresh of the teacher recruitment and retention strategy and extend its scope. A wider education workforce strategy is needed that has a long-term focus, and includes teaching assistants, school support staff and tutors as well as teachers and leaders. For wider support staff, this should include looking at whether pay is competitive enough to attract and retain sufficient high-quality staff.

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Amy Skipp

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