For well over a year now, the House of Commons Education Select Committee has been running an inquiry into the state of special educational needs in England. It’s turned into a massive piece of work. The Committee has taken over 700 pieces of written evidence. They’ve heard from parents, professionals, local authority bigwigs, Ministers - and most importantly, they’ve heard from children and young people with SEND.
We’re still waiting on the final report from the SEND inquiry – but it’s not the only inquiry from this Committee that’s relevant to SEND families.
In parallel, the Education Select Committee’s been looking into the state of school and college funding in England. This inquiry’s report was published today, and it doesn’t mince its words.
What’s the funding inquiry about?
The Committee opened their funding inquiry back in April 2018, the day after they opened their SEND inquiry. The terms of reference of the funding inquirywere very technical: they wanted to investigate what the Department for Education should be prioritising for school and college funding in its budget negotiations with the Treasury, whether current funding levels and budget setting mechanisms were working well, and whether some specific education funding systems were doing their jobs properly.
When the inquiry started, it wasn’t obvious that SEND was going to be an important focus for it. But as evidence came flooding in, the Committee decided to hold a specific evidence session for SEND funding – and in their report, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to it.
What does the report say?
Looking top-down, the funding inquiry’s report lays out some stark, but familiar messages.
“School and college funding is under growing pressure. More pupils, the cumulative effect of education reforms, and increasingly complex special needs requirements have put significant strain on the education sector over the past decade, whilst pressures on social services have led schools and colleges to provide support across a growing variety of areas. Funding has not increased in line with these rising demands”
“Further education has been hit the hardest… …This funding gap is the result of policy choices that now need to be addressed urgently. The social justice implications of the squeeze on further education colleges are particularly troubling, given the high proportion of disadvantaged students in these institutions.”A ten year plan for school and college funding, Education Select Committee
The Committee assesses that there’s not enough funding – but it also believes that more funding alone won’t solve the problem. They identify serious problems with the way that organisations operate within the funding system, with the Department for Education taking a particularly severe pounding:
“The underlying reasons for this bleak funding picture are varied, ranging from the lingering consequences of the financial crisis through to systemic failures in forward-planning and operational delivery, and significant discrepancies between funding requirements and budget availability that have driven a vicious cycle of spiralling costs.”
“The Department [for Education] must be clear that securing additional funding in the now overdue spending review will not fix deeper problems with the overall funding system. Throughout our inquiry, we encountered a troubling lack of long-term vision”A ten year plan for school and college funding, Education Select Committee
“Most concerning was the astonishing disconnect between the available funding and the costs of delivering a quality education and support system. Indeed, we were unable to determine whether the Department had a clear idea of how much money was needed to fund the various components of the school and college education system appropriately and efficiently. We suspected not.”
What does the report say about SEND?
There’s a whole section of this report that looks at SEND – but mindful of the separate SEND inquiry that’s running in parallel, this report concentrates squarely on the funding situation. And it paints a grim picture that’ll come as no surprise to most SNJ readers.
“Special educational needs and disability funding is completely inadequate. There is simply not enough money in the system to provide for the scale of demand. Local authorities are expected to face a funding shortfall in excess of £1 billion by 2021. The post–16 sector in particular is having to deal with significant challenges in the context of enormous funding constraints. This is not sustainable.”A ten year plan for school and college funding, Education Select Committee
The language here might sound fairly unremarkable to those of us knee-deep in the system – but in the clipped tones of Parliamentese, it’s a full-throated roar.
The report highlights some of the evidence that inquiry witnesses put forward to explain why this is happening: the rise in the number of children and young people needing EHCPs, perverse incentives within the SEND funding system that penalise inclusive mainstream schools and make it harder to secure good SEND support without an EHCP, and increased use of more expensive specialist provision.
Some witnesses also cited increased parental expectations as a factor, although it’s hard to sustain this argument. I suspect these witnesses would be appalled if they came across parents who applied these same expectations to a child without SEND.
The report then lays out some of the consequences:
“The cumulative impacts of these various pressures have been severe. A report by ISOS Partnership estimated a national high needs spending deficit of between £1.2 billion and £1.6 billion by 2021.”
“Local authorities have been accused of using the EHC assessment process to act as a ‘gatekeeper’ to accessing high needs block funding, and attempting to avoid granting approvals due to financial constraints”
“The number of cases going to tribunal has been increasing, with an estimated £100 million spent by local authorities since 2014 on tribunal defence. On average, judgements were found in favour of families in 89% of cases.” [This estimate comes from Special Needs Jungle, you can read more here]
“Further education institutions have faced particular funding challenges. The Association of Colleges told our inquiry into SEND that a significant number of college students had a degree of SEND but had not received an EHC plan or support from the High Needs Funding block.”A ten year plan for school and college funding, Education Select Committee
So what does the Education Select Committee recommend?
The bigger SEND inquiry report has yet to drop, and this is a report first and foremost about funding. So the SEND-specific recommendations in this report are mostly about money, and the way it’s channelled around the system. There’s a blunt, upfront recommendation for more money, particularly at the high-needs end:
“The Department [for Education] must make the strongest possible case to the Treasury for sufficient funds to finance the widening high-needs deficit, projected to be over £1 billion by 2021, and address the underlying drivers of spiralling costs at an early stage. The funding uplift must include a thorough assessment of the cost implications of local authorities’ duty to maintain an Education, Health and Care Plan up to the age of 25.A ten year plan for school and college funding, Education Select Committee
But again, the Committee states pretty clearly that extra dosh alone won’t solve the SEND funding crisis. They take careful aim at two things in particular: the operation of the “notional budget” at mainstream school level, and the way that the Department for Education calculates how much funding each local authority gets for high-needs SEND.
“The evidence submitted to our inquiry was clear that periodic top-ups would not be enough to address the systemic drivers exacerbating the funding crisis. Rather, the accumulation of problems in the SEND funding system pointed towards the need for longer-term thinking and a
co-ordinatedeffort to tackle the crisis of confidence, funding sufficiency, and operational delivery.”
“The Department’s assessment of the core school funding uplift requirements must include a thorough analysis of the role that sufficient core school funding plays in facilitating early intervention and avoiding more costly interventions later on.”
“The Department should review and revise the high needs funding formula to ensure it is sufficiently responsive to changing needs.A ten year plan for school and college funding, Education Select Committee
As part of this review, the Department should assess the extent to which notional budget allocations take sufficient account of future trends, and facilitate adjustments to the notionalbudget allocation methodology to make funding arrangements more forward-looking.”
One funding issue that the report doesn’t cover is the way that local authorities allocate their high needs SEND funding – things like banding and local policies. That’s a pity – this is a rock that the Committee lifted during the oral evidence sessions, with all sorts of unpleasantness scurrying out from underneath.
Above everything else though, the Committee want to see a much longer-term approach taken towards working out education funding – ideally, a ten-year plan to match long-term funding to long-term objectives, an approach designed to eliminate short-term fixes, ineffectual tinkering and “initiative-itis”. It sounds attractive, but it’s hard to manage in a political system that revolves around a five-year election cycle – and by itself, long-term planning won’t solve much without better accountability and culture, as any SEND parent wrestling long-term with NHS provision will tell you.
What happens next?
It’s really hard to tell, simply because the wider political situation is so chaotic.
In theory, the Department for Education reads the Committee’s report on funding, digests it, responds to it, and (hopefully) makes changes. The Education Select Committee is about as influential as it gets – but it doesn’t have direct power to make changes. And on the key question of funding, it’ll come down to hard negotiations between the Department for Education and the Treasury.
Meanwhile, the DfE is already consulting on changing some of the way that SEND funding is channelled around the system – we wrote about this consultation exercise, and you can find more details here.
And as far as SEND is concerned, this is the less important Education Select Committee inquiry report. The main SEND inquiry, described recently by the Committee’s chair, Robert Halfon MP, as “one of the biggest pieces of work ever undertaken by a [Parliamentary Select] committee”, has yet to issue its report.
We don’t know what it’s going to say, but Mr Halfon has sent up a few smoke signals. In a May 2019 interview, he described the world of special educational needs as a “...horror story. It is irrefutable that it is a disaster… the resources that have been spent badly, the lack of accountability, the constant treacle of bureaucracy that parents have to wade through – it’s a horror story.”
Better early intervention was consistently cited as one of the best ways to manage SEND requirements in an inclusive and cost-effective way. Evidence submitted to our inquiry into Special educational needs and disabilities indicated that schools felt unable— and were perhaps insufficiently willing—to provide a graduated response to additional needs before resorting to statutory support systems. This was said to foster a lack of inclusive practice within schools, and the diminishing faith among parents in SEN Support was associated with the increase in EHC plan requests.A ten year plan for school and college funding, Education Select Committee
But time is ticking, and the horror story has yet to be told. Next week, Parliament will go into recess, and it won’t return until early September - by which time Brexit will be looming large again. And if Parliament ends up getting dissolved or prorogued, we may never see this report at all.
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