Everyone’s feeling the cost of living crisis right now – and the world of SEND hasn’t been spared.
Most children and young people with SEND are educated in schools. In the last few weeks, teachers and support staff have found out how much their wages will be increasing by this year. Teacher and support staff wages have lagged behind inflation for years, and that’s still mostly true for their pay rises this year.
There are few people in the public sector who deserve a pay increase more – particularly teaching assistants, whose wages have become virtually impossible to live on.
But the way that these staff pay increases are being implemented spells trouble for schools. And for the high-needs part of SEND, things are even worse. Why? Because the system that connects complex special educational needs, SEND provision and school finance is utterly dysfunctional.
What’s the problem?
In early 2022, schools were told what their funding allocations would be for this year, and they set their budgets accordingly. However, the proposed staff pay increases were announced months later, they’ve only just been firmed up at national level, and they’ve come in essentially unfunded.
Staffing costs usually make up about 80% of a school’s budget. Specialist SEND provision requires more people, and so staff costs tend to take up even more of a special school’s budget.
Schools get their funding via a complex chain involving local and central government. You might think that those bits of government would give schools extra funding for unusually chunky wage increases - especially for staff who exclusively support children and young people with SEND. If you did, then you’d be wrong.
How can we tell? By following the money, and looking at banding.
Back to the bands
Almost all LAs use a ‘banded’ funding system to dole out ‘top-up’ funding for high-needs SEND to state mainstream and special schools. We’ve covered ‘banding’ on SNJ already – you can find a detailed explainer here.
This funding stream (sometimes known as ‘top-up’) comes from a funding pot known as the High Needs Block. This year, the High Needs Block increased in size by roughly 13% nationally. At LA level, the lowest increase was 11%.
So how much have LAs increased top-up bands by?
A few months ago, I asked LAs what changes they’d made to their ‘top-up’ banding levels this year. With more money now in the pot for high-needs SEND, and schools facing rampant inflation, what increases have LAs made to the value of their ‘top-up’ bands?
The most common answer I got from LAs? No change. No uplift. Zero. The square root of sod-all. In most cases, at a per-pupil level, schools have been given no extra high-needs funding by their LAs.
In all, I heard back from 140 LAs. 133 of them use banding to dole out high-needs top-up funding.
Check the infographics below – but in 69 of these LAs, the median change to band values was 0%, compared to last year. And in the worst cost of living crisis in memory, two LAs actually cut their band values.
A handful of councils made beefy increases: this year, five LAs increased band values by 10% or more. But for those LAs that did feed increases through, the median band value increase was around 4% - well below inflation.
At least 30 councils haven’t increased their high-needs band values since 2018-19. The worst two offenders haven’t increased them at all since 2015.
Special schools take a pounding
It’s state-funded special schools that are hit hardest by this. Special schools tend to employ more staff per-pupil than mainstream schools do, they need more specialist professionals to support kids than mainstream schools do, and most are full-to-bursting.
The costs of running state special schools have increased massively – but they receive the same basic level of place funding (£10,000) that they got in 2014, and most have received little to no increase in ‘top-up’ funding from LAs this year.
Worse still, a significant number of LAs (probably at least 40) didn’t pass on a one-off grant known as the Schools Supplementary Grant to their special schools this year. This grant is supposed to help schools pay for this year’s higher National Insurance costs. Mainstream schools got it automatically - but central government left it up to LAs to decide whether to pass it on to special schools. Many didn’t.
So why is this happening?
There are two main reasons that LAs give out, plus one that they don’t:
- The number of children and young people needing specialist support continues to grow: LAs argue that because of this, they can’t spread financial jam more thickly – they say they have to spread it at the same thin level, just over more bread than even before.
- Central government is pressurising LAs to pay back deficits: at the end of March 2022, LAs had cumulatively racked up around £1.45bn of deficits on core schools funding – mostly because they’ve spent more than they were given by Whitehall to pay for high-needs SEND. Whitehall wants this money back, and most LAs are now working to tight deficit reduction targets.
- The accountability system is broken and perverted: Whitehall now holds LAs rigorously to account for SEND finance. But in practice, only a handful of parents hold LAs to account for failures to meet their statutory obligations to make EHCP provision in full. Schools and academy trusts either can’t or won’t do this, on the whole.
The laws and regulations that underpin the SEND system were designed, where possible, to shield children and young people from risk. As every SEND parent knows, making these rights a reality is an immense challenge.
And the cost of living crisis is a perfect example of how those operating the SEND system perversely flip the balance of risk. Instead of pushing risk upwards – away from children and young people with SEND, and towards large, well-padded bureaucracies – the operators of this system push this risk downwards. First onto schools, then onto their staff, and ultimately, despite many schools’ best efforts, onto our kids.
Some real-world examples
To show how, let’s run a couple of cases, drawing on the banding data I collected from LAs:
Case 1: Support cut
You have a profoundly deaf seven-year-old with an EHCP at a mainstream primary school in the East of England. Your child uses British Sign Language to communicate, and needs a full-time 1:1 communication support worker (CSW) in class to access the curriculum.
With the national pay award, this year the CSW gets a long-overdue pay rise of £1,925 – but the school gets no extra funding from the LA to pay them.
Why? Because the LA kept its high-needs ‘top up’ rates frozen this year.
The LA has had a 13% increase in high-needs funding - but it has a big high-needs deficit, more kids needing help, and the warm, latte-fuelled breath of a senior DfE accountant is blowing hard in council managers’ faces. This funding problem is multiplied across the school for all its SEND support staff. The school can’t suck up the extra costs without making cuts –- so the CSW’s hours get chopped.
If your kid’s EHCP is properly written, specifying full-time 1:1 support in Section F, then judicial review of the LA’s decision would very probably be an option here. But in this LA, they like to keep Section F vague, and the EHCP wasn’t challenged – so a judicial review is unlikely to fly.
Net result: Your child loses out – big time – because they don’t get the fundamental support they need. The CSW loses out; they don’t see the benefits of a pay rise, and in real terms, they’re now worse off as inflation works its corrosive magic.
Case 2 – cuts threaten children’s safety
You have an autistic teenager with other complex co-morbidities, including physical disability. They’re at a state special school in the Midlands, and they need intensive provision from teachers, therapists, and support staff, using specialist equipment.
As with every year since 2014, the school gets £10,000 place funding for your child. Last year, they also got £10,800 in banded ‘top-up’ payment from the LA, so £20,800 in total. This year, the LA has increased ‘top up’ band values by 2% - so the school now gets an extra £200 per year to educate your young person.
Last year, your teenager’s school had a budget of around £2.5m. With the 2% increase in ‘top-up’ funding this year, it’s got £25,000 more in its budget. But wage increases of 5%-10% mean that overall staff costs have increased by £80,000. Additionally, because the school has a hydrotherapy pool that’s vital to the physical development of its pupils, its energy costs have ballooned too.
The school’s finances are already weak. For the last seven years, funding hasn’t kept up with inflation. Even before the current cost of living crisis started to bite, the school’s budget was already around £400,000 lower in real terms than it was in 2014. This year, the cuts that the special school will have to make to keep afloat are not just unsustainable – they pose a threat to the safety and well-being of their pupils, and an economic threat to the staff that the school employs.
What options are there?
We can’t give financial or legal advice here. At the level of individual families and schools, everyone’s situation is different. A qualified legal professional can advise you on your options for judicial review. Attempts to challenge banding at a systemic level via judicial review have not been successful so far – but at the individual level, if you can demonstrate that resources are insufficient to make the provision specified in an EHCP, your odds will probably be better.
School leadership unions are currently consulting their members, asking whether they’d be willing to consider strike action over pay and underfunding. But given the current priorities of SEND system leaders, appeals to their good sense and humanity are unlikely to be successful.
And so, for now, the risk will just pass back down the system: through our “valiant” SEND system leaders and their consultants on six-figure pay packets, down to the school leaders on mid-high five-figure salaries, hurtling downwards onto support staff on subsistence-level salaries, and finally crashing down onto children and young people with SEND.
It's become fashionable amongst SEND parents to say to each other that ‘funding isn’t your problem’ – that it’s for the LA and school to sort out between themselves. Legally speaking, that’s true. Practically speaking, it’s not. Whether you like it or not, the self-styled grown-ups in the room are making it your child’s problem.
Is there more SEND funding coming?
Yes. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has pledged to add £2 billion of new money to core school funding in each of the next two financial years, on top of increases that were already planned. In real terms, that’ll bring overall school funding per pupil roughly back up to the level it was at in 2010, at the end of the last Labour government and the start of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government.
The Department for Education has yet to decide how to allocate this extra funding – in particular, how much of it will be earmarked for the financially-ravaged High Needs Block. If things follow previous years, then it’s likely to mean that the High Needs Block will be around 10% bigger in 2023-24 than it was this year. How much of a difference that’s going to make at the coalface is anyone’s guess.
Yesterday, the DfE also announced two new measures. They’ve extended an existing programme to fund training of educational psychologists: the programme extension will cost £21m, and will fund training for 400 EPs from 2024. That’ll make a dent in a national shortage of EPs, but not much of a dent: 400 EPs averages out at about 2-3 per LA.
The DfE is also extending an assistive technology training programme, which up to 150 schools can apply for, to “give school staff the confidence and capability to take full advantage of the range of technology available in the classroom to support children with SEND.” The training programme is better than nothing, particularly for pupils on SEN Support - but it’s not far off nothing. This will fund training for up to 150 schools: 12,000 English schools support one or more pupils with a hearing or visual impairment, and there are plenty of other types of SEN where assistive technology is a vital part of provision.
And ultimately, the training programme won’t address the bigger obstacle to the use of assistive tech in SEND – who actually pays for it. The implementation plan for the SEND and AP Green Paper will apparently have the answers to that – but that’s now been officially confirmed as delayed until early 2023.
Infographics © Special Needs Jungle
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