Unfair, flawed and not joined up: Why fixing SEN funding matters. #CountMeIn

SNJ Note: Today we welcome back the SENCo, known by his Twitter handle, @AspieDeLaZouch. He wrote for us a few months ago about SEN Funding. Last week some research on SEN funding was released and ADLZ has written for us again, this time a hugely important analysis of new SEN Funding research released last week.

We're delighted that @AspiedeLaZouch has agreed to be one of our new columnists writing about SEND issues he encounters as a SENCo, bringing an SEN teacher's view from the coalface to SNJ. 

SEND funding: This matters

When I first wrote about the DfE’s consultation on funding for special educational needs, back in January, I asked the DfE to consider how they could engage parents and young people. “Whose views could possibly matter more…?” I asked, with the hashtag #CountMeIn.

To be fair, Stuart Miller at the DfE and Ben Bryant at research partner ISOS were both quick to acknowledge that they had some work to do in that respect and that this could only be a start, not the end of the story. Last week saw the publication of the ISOS report and, no matter what age your child is or which sector of education you are involved with, it matters to you.

image of report front cover

Why it matters

FIRST: It matters, first, because it’s detailed and intelligently designed: 13 contrasting Local Authorities were analysed in depth to understand how fair SEND funding systems really are, in:

  • early years settings
  • mainstream schools
  • special schools
  • post-16 providers, including specialist providers

Again to be fair, some parents were consulted (Ch. 12) and the researchers, led by Bryant and Natalie Parish, tackled all the complex issues. Natalie has experience of developing education policy at local, national and international level and it shows: this is research of a high standard. I’ll go further: it’s the BEST attempt we’ve ever seen to re-frame the SEND funding problem.

SECOND: It matters, secondly, because it shows there is HUGE unfairness in the current system of funding schools at a time when this government is set to hand more schools over to multi-academy trusts. That’s going to make transparency even more… precious. The very real possibility of moving to, “a funding formula for schools that significantly reduced, or removed, local authority discretion” is acknowledged in Chapter 7.

I’m guessing this was part of the brief and it has major implications for SEND. If LAs (oh, how I love them…) assess children and young people’s needs but no longer control the resources to meet them, that could end a conflict of interest we've always complained about. But Bryant and Parish highlight another conflict: a really good national formula (and they've tested one) could produce fairer SEND funding but local decision-making is still key to the choices facing parents. According to Simon Knight, Deputy Headteacher at Frank Wise Teaching School in Oxfordshire (a 2-19 special school), the special school sector needs, “a better strategic plan for meeting the changing need within localities”. The ISOS report also places strong emphasis on the need for Clinical Commissioning Groups to be part of this strategic process, and CCGs have their roots in localities. Let’s not kid ourselves: the solution to SEND funding requires better practice – much better - at both national and local level and the two cannot be divorced.

THIRD: Thirdly, it matters because, as the report shows, the funding changes made two years ago to underpin the SEND reforms are seriously flawed. The idea that mainstream schools would be guided by a ‘notional’ (but not ring-fenced) budget for SEND was always unrealistic; schools which are genuinely inclusive spend way beyond that figure, others pay lip-service to it. Do you know what your school’s Notional SEN Budget is - or how you’d find out? ISOS have shown that the distribution of this funding is, in any case, hopelessly mismatched against the actual needs. An example: a primary school has a Notional SEN budget for each child on the SEND register of £2,200 while others in the same LA, with almost identical numbers of SEND children, have a Notional SEN Budget of up to 7 times as much.

"ISOS produce evidence that there is far too little joint-working between education, health and care services for the reforms to have any chance of success in the post-16 sector."
It matters too, because there is a real crisis in the post-16 sector: the SEND reforms may have offered services from birth to 25 but the reality is somewhat different. Post-16 courses are funded for 600 Guided Learning Hours per year, the equivalent of three days per week. That’s not adequate. Young people need provision five days a week and parents are turning to special schools when really their local college would have been their preference. ISOS produce evidence that there is far too little joint-working between education, health and care services for the reforms to have any chance of success in the post-16 sector. I’m dealing with the issue myself right now for some of my students and I've seen at first hand the financial nightmare playing out in our FE sector; it’s not just an SEND issue, it affects every aspect of their operation. But of course, it will hit the life-changing opportunities of young people with SEND hardest. You knew that, didn’t you...

It matters especially if, as some Local Authorities suggested to the researchers, there is a long-term increase in the number of children with very high-need, low incidence SEND as a result of advances in treatment and survival rates for premature babies (Ch. 12). This is just one of many factors which make the Early Years sector (Ch. 8) perhaps the most problematic in this report. Nowhere is the gulf between theory and practice, between promise and delivery, between duty and discretion, so baffling. Even ISOS can’t quite get a handle on it.

They argue that problems of small scale, varying needs, unpredictable demand and different interpretations of the rules mean that a national system can’t be imposed without excessive bureaucracy. They may be right. But they're aware that central support services, vital to SEND provision in the early years, are reducing because Local Authorities are under massive pressure to scrap anything and everything that isn't nailed down. So having set out to find ways to build fairness into the education system at every level, I think ISOS shied away from this one. EY provision is the first experience parents have of society’s preparedness to welcome their child on equal terms. It’s not good enough to suggest that, “clear expectations” should be, “part of the ongoing development of the local offer” or that the DfE can solve this problem with webinars.

What happens now?

So what now? An extensive consultation process was promised in a House of Commons Written Statement last Thursday by Sam Gyimah, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Childcare and Education. If that process builds on the ISOS report, we can expect to see proposals to:

  • scrap the Notional SEN Budget for schools and introduce a new formula for mainstream schools and post-16 providers based on measures of child poverty and health (including DLA), take-up of Free School Meals and school performance;
  • enhance the top-up procedures for students with very high needs;
  • introduce regional planning and commissioning of special school places and SEND units in mainstream schools.

Am I happy with that? I’m happy that the researchers have understood the problems they were looking at, i.e. funding at LA-level and school-level. The issues with funding for individual children are separate: the EHCP process is already under investigation and, in the opportunities I've been given recently to voice the concerns we all share, I've found a very good understanding at the DfE about what’s not working.

They know: believe me, they know. So, for now, ISOS can #CountMeIn.

Barney Angliss, @AspieDeLaZouch
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  1. elsiep

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for shedding some light on this.

    I’ve always been puzzled by the government framing the problem with SEN support in terms of ‘conflict of interest’ within LAs. There has been a conflict of interest, but only because of funding structures set up by central government.

    The root cause of the SEND ‘problem’ is the way children with SEND are perceived by central government. Children with SEND happen because of natural variations in human populations. They are not usually the result of poor parenting or poor teaching. There is no reason for those children all to be hived off into special schools nor for all of them to be forced to attend mainstream schools trailing a pot of money after them. If all teachers were trained to teach all children and government stopped micromanaging education, mainstream school funding requirements would plummet. That’s because the best support for children with SEND lies in teacher expertise, not pots of money to squabble over. Mainstream initial teacher training has never included teaching all children during the history of state education in the UK. And administering those pots of money costs a fortune.

    My family is currently in the midst of a post-16 high needs funding nightmare. The past 12 years has been a bit of a roller coaster, and I’ve seen a few weird things in my working life, but I have never, seen anything like this.

  2. Great summary, thanks. As a parent funding is one of the biggest issues we come across – and it’s not as if we are asking for diamond studded care, just the basic help and education our child needs. Would love to see planning take place on any scale rather than the stick your head in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening approach which some LAs seem to favour…..

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