SEND audited: Is the system affordable? What’s the alternative?

with Frances Ridout, Director of the Legal Advice Centre, Queen Mary University, London

SEND audited: Is the system affordable? What's the alternative?

Just last week, Matt mentioned the upcoming report from the National Audit Office (NAO). And lo, this week, here it is. 

As expected, it’s not comfortable reading for the Department for Education, with its headline that while “some” children with special educational needs and disabilities are receiving high-quality support, “many others are not getting the help they should”. It's pretty savaging as well about the quality of the DfE's research and evidence base for funding and outcomes of children and young people with SEND.

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Auditing SEND?

The NAO scrutinises public spending so Parliament can hold government to account and improve public services. It launched its SEND audit to examine whether the Department for Education has assurance that funding is distributed according to need; whether pupils with special educational needs and disabilities are receiving high-quality support that lead to good outcomes; and whether the arrangements for overseeing the cost and quality of services, and for intervening if services are under-performing, are effective.

The report has arrived just before any possible election and a week after the Government dropped a year’s worth of funding for SEND to the tune of £700 million, which will plug a few holes. But as Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, confirmed in a video Q&A, it isn’t ringfenced, so it won’t necessarily end up where it is intended. He “expects” schools to use it for SEND – well okay then.

Missed opportunity?

With no real requirement for accountability, it’s clear the Government doesn’t know what schools do with the money it gives them, and that’s part of the issue that the NAO report highlights“The Department does not know the impact of the support provided for pupils with SEND... ...the Department has not specified, in measurable terms, the outcomes it wants to achieve from its support for pupils with SEND.”

This means the DfE has no idea whether the £9.4 billion the NAO estimates it gave to England’s local authorities for SEND in 2018-19 –24.0% of their total core grant for schools – has resulted in the positive outcomes for disabled children. It is true that “SEND Futures”, the DfE’s major research programme launched last December is hoping to change this, but it won’t help current pupils who have no guarantee that last week's tranche of money will create a real difference to their experience.

This £9.4 billion includes the circa £3.8bn of the notional SEND budget. This is the lump sum that each school is delegated to meet the needs of its children with SEND who don’t have EHCP funding. But while the NAO notes this sum isn’t ringfenced, the report doesn’t explore whether this notional SEND budget has been used entirely for SEND. I’ve heard SENCOs say “What delegated SEND budget?” or otherwise remark that they never see it, so this is a missed opportunity for the NAO, and for children on SEN Support.

“During our work, parents and carers contacted us about their experiences of the SEND system. While they cannot be considered to be a representative sample, nearly all were unhappy with the support that their children had received. Many recounted the negative impact that the shortcomings in support were having on their children’s education, well-being and prospects.”


A sorry picture - with a big hole in it

It’s all there in the report – the whole sorry mess. Demand for SEND outstripping funding; how 44% of exclusions are children with SEND; a lack of both suitable LA provision and a lack of inclusion in mainstream by schools not wanting, or off-rolling, kids with SEND. The last two of these both lead to an increase in need for specialist provision, whether state or independent special schools. 

 “Stakeholders in the sector have raised concerns that the demand for special school places is growing because the system incentivises mainstream primary and secondary schools to be less inclusive. Mainstream schools are expected to cover the first £6,000 of support for a child with SEND from existing budgets and cost pressures can make them reluctant to admit or keep pupils with SEND. “

National Audit Office report: Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England

The report also highlights the growing financial pressure LAs are under as the demand for supporting pupils with high needs increases. Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, DfE funding did not keep up with the 10% growth in pupils with EHCPs. Four of those years were post “reforms”.  

Over the same period, per-pupil Government funding fell by 2.6% in real terms for those with high needs, as well as dropping for those without EHC plans. Inevitably, this means LAs ended up overspending the high needs budget. Less than half of LAs overspent in 2013/14, while more than 80% did so in 2017/18. LAs spending on school transport for pupils with SEND has also increased significantly, and was £102 million (18.4%) over budget in 2017-18. 

When it comes to why spending increased so much, the NAO points to a 20% rise in pupils in special schools and a 32.4% rise in real-term spending on independent special schools (ISS). It points to a cost increase over the 2013/14-2017/18 time frame in an independent special school of 8.4% in real terms, compared with a real-terms decrease of 1.8% in state special schools. But 8.4% is a reasonably good fit for the above-inflation cost pressures that all special schools have experienced in this time frame. It largely indicates that most independent special schools have raised fees in response to these cost pressures; state schools can’t do this. It’s not compelling evidence that indie SS are scalping LAs.

And that's far from the whole story - what it strangely omits is the fact that the reforms extended statutory duties to disabled young people up to the age of 25 and this has been a huge additional cost that Government had not taken into consideration. 

This isn’t just a short-term cost. As more children with complex needs grow up, many will need this ongoing support to 25 as well. This omission is serious – if the Government is going to assess and forecast the true cost of the current system, this must be factored in.

And this isn’t the only place young people are being failed:

The Department does not have good evidence to evaluate how the support pupils receive at school prepares them for adulthood. Neither has it specified, in a measurable way, what good support at school would look like in terms of improving young people’s ability to live independently in the long term.”

National Audit Office report: Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England

A sustainable, affordable approach?

“In response to overspending against these budgets, local authorities are transferring money from their budgets for mainstream schools to support pupils with high needs. They are also using up their ringfenced school reserves, which have dropped by 86.5% in the last four years. This is not a sustainable approach.”

National Audit Office report: Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England (our emphasis)

In its recommendations, the NAO says that the DfE should assess how much it would cost to provide the system for supporting pupils with SEND created by the 2014 reforms and use this to determine whether it is affordable. It says the DfE needs better measures of the effectiveness of SEND support in preparing pupils for their adult lives and should make changes to funding and accountability arrangements to encourage and support mainstream schools to be more inclusive.

 “It is vital that children with special educational needs and disabilities have the support they need at school for them to achieve their ambitions and lead fulfilling lives.

“Yet there are significant concerns that many pupils are not being supported effectively and the NAO’s report finds that based on current trends, the system is not financially sustainable.  

“The Government must urgently review whether the current system is affordable and ensure that every child receives the support they deserve."

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts (our emphasis)

What does Ms Hillier mean by the last sentence? If it isn’t “affordable” what alternative does she propose? A different system? I thought we just had new one?  And as it is as vital as she says for children with SEND to get the help they need, then it must be made affordable by the Government putting in the money required. 

If the Government means it when it says, repeatedly“Our ambitions for children and young people with complex special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are exactly the same as for every other child and young person,”then it needs to accept that this is a cost it must meet, in full. 

It’s worrying though that the report raises questions about the number of EHCPs. They’re not given out like sweets, after all. And there would be more if those families who are turned down and go away, decided to appeal. The fact is that those who do, win their case at the SEND Tribunal 89% of the time. It shows that an EHCP was deemed necessary by an expert judge - this is not something that should be questioned lightly. And while some LAs think the 'bar' for who should qualify for statutory support is too low, it hasn't changed or been challenged for well over 30 years. Just because it's inconvenient doesn't make it wrong.

infographic from national audit office

The failure of the reforms

The NAO report makes no bones about why the reforms have failed to create a SEND nirvana:

“The Department did not fully assess the likely financial consequences of the 2014 reforms. The Department had tested elements of its proposals with ‘pathfinder’ local authorities, which helped it to understand the transitional costs and other challenges involved in implementing the reforms. The Department expected that the benefits and savings would significantly outweigh the costs of moving to the new system. It believed that more collaborative working between agencies and greater engagement with families would lead to cost savings. However, it did not quantify these or validate its assumptions before implementing the changes. It expected, for example, that there would be fewer challenges to local authorities’ decisions about support and that these could be resolved through mediation. In practice, the number of cases being taken to tribunal increased by 80.5%, from 3,147 in 2014/15 to 5,679 in 2017/18 “

National Audit Office report: Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England

The above quote is something that was predicted by us and others, and what came to pass. It was obvious to anyone who could look at the situation in the round – indeed, we wrote many a post about how a lack of culture change would scupper the reforms. The Dfe didn’t care. It just ploughed on ahead with its fingers in its ears believing that all would be well and its vision of SEND utopia would play out before our very eyes. 

The report also notes the variability across the country of SEND provision. While some areas may be doing very well, others as evidenced by their appalling SEND Inspection reports, are failing to meet expectations. It said respondents to the investigation overwhelmingly said that there were disparities and inconsistencies not only between, but also within, local areas in identifying and assessing pupils’ needs, allocating funding and providing access to services. It notes:

“The Department has not carried out any systematic analysis of variation [between the quality of support in LAs] – for example, in demand for EHC plans, use of special schools and indicators of pupils’ progress – to help it to identify good practice or to ensure that pupils have equitable access to support.”

National Audit Office report: Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England

Oh dear. Bottom of the class. 

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What will it change?

Of course, the Department for Education knew this was coming. It cooperated with the National Audit Office, letting them trail its special SEND Advisers around. It also knows the SEND Inquiry report – if it gets published before an election is called (hurry up @CommonsEd !!) is going to be pretty dire. It’s read the same reports we all have. It's read SNJ too, so it knows what parents think.

I predict that sometime today the Department will respond to this report something like this: We welcome the report from the NAO… we have already embarked upon a long-term research project, SEND Futures… We believe the reforms were the right ones…Many children are benefiting from the new EHCPs…we have now launched a far-reaching review of SEND… we will consider this report as well as the forthcoming SEND inquiry report.. (and others) as part of our review…etc etc. In other words, okay, thanks, leave it with us for a couple of weeks, whereupon it will be the job of a different government (perhaps). 

But what will happen to put things right for children? With the NAO acknowledging that the DfE doesn’t have a grasp of outcomes in relation to funding, who is to check that the £700 million being pumped into LAs will get the results needed or end up where it should? Gavin Williamson’s “expectation” aside, reports are good at stating what we know and making a little splash in the mire that is SEND. What we need is action – what we need is accountability for outcomes. This report – or any other report – doesn’t guarantee this. 

Government and LAs need to accept that THEY are the ones who have caused this mess and yet they don’t have to live with the consequences like disabled children and their families do.

“The government’s vision for children with SEND is that they, as all children, achieve well in their early years, at school and in college, and lead happy and fulfilled lives. The Department has not translated this vision into a set of desired outcomes for the support system. “

National Audit Office report: Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England

While it matters why there are increasing numbers of children with SEND, that is not the question that the DfE needs to answer right at this moment. The fact is, there ARE growing numbers and the budget needs to match this. If LAs don’t want children moving into special schools, they need to insist on inclusivity in their own schools. Government needs to do the same for academies and make them more accountable. 

If LAs don’t want children who are headed for specialist provision to use independent schools, then they must create their own, suitable provision. Ofsted inspections show that when LAs create specialist provision, they are largely very good. Therefore, the Government needs to fund a program to build LA-run specialist schools to fill local gaps, after LAs have determined what they are. 

It’s no good carping on about the increase in numbers. It is what it is, and it’s like that for many reasons including better identification, and medical science improvements that save children who previously wouldn’t have made it, but who still have additional needs caused by their condition or by being very premature. They are miracles and they deserve a chance to live their best lives.

If LAs think there are too many children going into specialist provision, then they need to put in money to fund educational psychologists, specialist teachers and speech and language teams early on in mainstream, so children can have their needs met in local schools where possible. Ofsted needs to go further than it has recently done and actively grade schools on inclusiveness. And the Government needs to scrap league tables that promote schools’ “perverse incentive” to remove children with SEND from mainstream

Er, that’s it. Read the whole report here or click through to the publication website here. Their recommendations are in the image slideshow below.

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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