SEND Funding Fact Check 3: Where the money’s gone, why it isn’t helping, and why more children need support

This is the third in our series of posts looking at the complex and toxic tyre fire that is SEND funding.

  1. In the first post, we looked at whether it was true, as the Department for Education claims, that high-needs funding has grown by 60% in five years (spoiler: it’s true, but t’s not the whole picture).
  2. In the second post, we looked at what difference all this extra money has made to funding at the level of individual children and young people with SEND (spoiler: in most cases, it’s made bugger-all difference).
  3. This third post looks at why that is…

Some is wasted fighting parents and SEND consultants

It’s tempting to assume that local authorities (LAs) have simply spaffed all the extra money that the DfE has sent them on conferences, consultants, and unwinnable SEND Tribunal appeals. They still spend way too much on those things. We estimate that LAs allocated around £100 million of resources to their SEND Tribunal appeal defence in 2022-23. Data shows their decisions were correct in just 1.7% of cases that went to hearing.

We also keep an eye on consultancy spending by LA SEND managers. Conservatively, we estimate annual spending in the low tens of millions of pounds – a figure that gets much higher if you throw in spending on recruitment agencies.

It’s nauseating to track, but it can’t explain where all the money’s gone. The wasted expenditure above is slightly north of £100m per year, and it’s mostly out of general council budgets, rather than schools’ funding. Councils are now getting billions of pounds more funding for schools per year.

So where’s it gone? And why isn’t the extra funding making a difference at per-pupil level?

Safety Valve-induced cuts

The DfE’s SEND financial intervention programmes are one reason why the extra funding doesn’t feel like it’s making a difference at the coalface – particularly if you’re in one of the 34 LAs in the Safety Valve intervention scheme.

In the second of these posts, we looked at LA high-needs banding systems. These systems are how most high-needs funding gets allocated to schools. When we checked the figures for last year, 93% of responding LAs had inflicted real-terms cuts on their median high-needs band values this year – but the size of the real-terms cut varied a lot.

Check the graph below. If your school is in a Safety Valve LA, you were slightly more likely to experience a real-terms cut – but you were a lot more likely to experience a sharp real-terms cut, usually by keeping band values static and letting inflation work its corrosive dark magic.

High Needs Band Value Increases in 2023-24

Increasing numbers of children with needs

But there’s another reason why the financial jam is being spread more thinly – it now has to support a wider group of children and young people than ever before.

The number of children and young people with EHCPs is greater than it ever has been, and it continues to grow. In January 2019, there were around 354,000 children and young people with an EHCP. In January 2023, there were around 517,000 – a 46% increase.

Special school placements tend to be more expensive than mainstream school placements. Although the overall proportion of children and young people with EHCPs placed in special schools has dropped since 2019, the special school population has increased by 26%. 

Statutory Plans by placement type 2014-2023

If you’ve looked at national media in recent months, you’ll have noticed a steady drumbeat of hot takes from columnists, think tankers and the occasional radio shock jock, trying to blame this increase on parents who are apparently trying to “game the system”. We know this is abject nonsense and it’s usually painfully obvious that they’ve been working from local government lobbying material and briefings.

They usually don’t quite have the balls to follow their arguments through to the end – i.e, that these are children whose needs don’t really exist; children who aren’t worthy of a suitable education. But there is no shortage of privileged people, claiming to be ‘just asking questions,’ who are willing to spit out these arguments from their frothing, uninformed yaps. You can find the most recent toxic example at a recorded Warwickshire Council meeting here, or the edited “highlights” of that session here.

The proportionate rise is at odds with the hyperbole

Census data shows that as a proportion of the school population, the percentage of pupils with SEND is pretty much where it was a decade ago. The percentage of pupils with EHCPs has ticked up from around 3% in 2014 to around 4% today. If this is supposed to be a ‘SEND explosion,’ as one ex-DfE midwit argues, then it’s the slowest deflagration-to-detonation transition ever.

Percentage of school pupils with SEND 2010-2023

So why has there been a big rise in the number of children and young people with statutory plans like EHCPs?

The reasons why the numbers have increased

The biggest single reason has been the 2014 SEND reforms – specifically, the change in law from the Children and Families Act that allowed many more young people over the age of 16 to receive and retain a statutory plan. Over 40% of the net increase in the number of statutory plans since 2014 is in the post-16 sector.

Net change in number of statutory EHCPs by age group 2014-2023

The other reasons? We’ve written plenty of articles about those and while we can’t discount the effect the pandemic has had, there are a few important points to note:

  • Serial failure to meet need at the right time, and with the right support.
  • Ways of working that are seen as completely unremarkable by SEND leaders, but would put me in prison if I tried the same thing in my job.
  • Other sorts of incentives and pressures (arcane processes, competing priorities, inspections) that are normally chalked up to ‘the system,’ but can almost always be traced back to appalling decisions made by very well-paid individuals who never suffer the consequences of those decisions.
  • But on the funding side, there were decisions made early on in the SEND reforms that accelerated the problems we have today—read on…

When the 2014 SEND reforms were introduced, hundreds of millions of pounds were allocated to implementing them. We traced what happened to that money, and it wasn’t pretty. But that money was for system reform, not for provision.

The SEND reforms didn’t lower the threshold for statutory support. They didn’t increase parental expectation – or at least, not beyond a basic expectation that the system would actually work. But what the reforms did do, was to extend eligibility for statutory support out to young people who previously would have been booted out after the age of 16 or 18. And in the first few years after this change was made, there wasn’t any meaningful extra funding to support it – with consequences that were entirely predictable.

This is the last graph (I promise!). It shows, in real terms and as an index, the drop in average high-needs funding per statutory plan since the SEND reforms became law in 2014.

Average High Needs Block Funding oer Statutory Plan 2014-23

Over the first four years of the SEND reforms, average high-needs funding per statutory plan fell by 30% in real terms: more young people with statutory plans, but no extra funding being pumped in from the centre.

The consequences were predictable to most people, but apparently not to those running the SEND system at the time. A 2018 BBC Breakfast interview with the-then Minister for Children Nadhim Zahawi painfully illustrates this. By the time system leaders woke up, discovered they’d screwed up and started putting more funding into high-needs SEND and specialist placements, they’d left it too late. The 2022 SEND & AP Green Paper accurately describes a vicious circle, but it’s light on the causes of it.

So who pays the price now?

We wrote this series of posts because various bits of the SEND system have been talking past each other for the last few years, and they’ve almost completely left children, young people, and their families out of the conversation.

The DfE has put a lot more money into the system. But it’s not making any meaningful difference at a per-pupil level on the front line. That’s partly because of things like Safety Valve, and partly because the SEND system broke so hard in the late 2010s that more children and young people have ended up needing statutory support than ever before. And round and round it goes.

SEND system leaders want to break this cycle. But their actions show their priority is very much on breaking it through demand management and suppression: driving the numbers of EHCPs downwards, transferring financial risk from their own institutions down onto schools, and – ultimately – onto children and young people with SEND.

The dehumanising metaphors and euphemisms that leaders deploy are a reflection of this. Their increasing willingness to blame families is a reflection of this. ‘Rising tides’ of demand. LAs ‘swamped’ by requests. ‘Golden freaking tickets’. ‘Robust decision-making.’ ‘Parental confidence.’ ‘Courageous conversations.‘Fixing the problem at source.’ And most recently, from one of local government’s favourite flying monkeys, ‘the volume challenge.’

It makes a lot of sense to put more funding, more specialist support, and more training towards early intervention. The question is where those resources come from, and who pays the price if and when that switch takes place.

And it’s looking very much like children and young people with high-needs SEND are going to be paying most of that cost.

Download the graphs as a pdf

Also read:

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Matt Keer


  1. pstrad2001

    Hi, on Post 16 Education, especially Post 19 – 25, we have discovered while challenging for such Provision, that no one is collecting any data on FE Students in individual Settings, as to how many are actually accessing Educational & Training Provision up to the Age of 25

    Whilst we acknowledge, and know some FE Settings do plan, and anticipate need as per SEND Law, and our Young Adults do access what they need, there are likely many other FE Settings that are not Compliant, such as by setting predetermined lengths on our Young Adults

    We are very curious as to others opinion on this as to how many Parent Carers feel their Local FE Setting has denied progress, when they clearly need it!

    There is a connection here, with SNJ researching what happens to our loved ones and how open and transparent FE Settings, and LA, are fulfilling Post 19, in a way that does not disadvantage any of our Post 19 SEND Student

    We are very interested in SNJ Members thoughts

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