Special educational needs and disability support: Rescuing the reforms

It is more than five years since the Coalition Government’s reforms of support for children and young people in England with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) came into effect. There is growing evidence of major strain on the system, both in funding shortfalls and ineffective implementation.

Unified support: The Children and Families Act 2014

The number of pupils attending state-funded special schools has risen since 2007, most steeply since 2015.

The 2014 reforms aimed to link support for children and young people with SEND aged 0-25 across education, health care, and social care. This was clearest in the Education, Health, and Care Plans (EHCP) that replaced the previous system of ‘statements’ of SEN. The system is locally managed. Local authorities are required to publish a ‘local offer’ that sets out the services available for children and young people with SEND.

The reforms were phased in, with existing pupils gradually moved over to the new system.

Separately, changes were also made to funding for schools with pupils with ‘high needs’, through a national funding formula. Local authorities mainly use the high needs grant to support pupils with SEND. Since 2018/19, there have been tighter restrictions on the extent to which councils may use wider school funding to supplement this spending.

Pressure on ‘high needs’ funding

High needs funding has risen significantly in recent years, from £5.66bn in 2014/15 to £6.85bn in 2020/21 (2019/20 prices), an increase of 21% in real terms.

The high needs funding system supports provision for children and young people with SEND from their early years to age 25. High needs funding is also intended to support alternative provision for pre-16 pupils who, because of exclusion, illness or other reasons, cannot receive their education in mainstream or special schools. High needs funding arrangements: 2020 to 2021, Gov.UK.

The number of pupils with EHC plans has more than doubled since 2007.

According to the Department for Education, the number of children and young people with an EHCP (or a statement) rose 16% between 2007 and 2019. In contrast, the total pupil population only increased by 8%. Over the same period, there has been a 40% rise in the number of pupils attending special schools. There has been a particular increase in pupils with EHCPs attending independent schools, where funding places tends to be more expensive.

Despite extra funding, the National Audit Office (NAO) found, in a January 2019 report, that cost pressures meant the high needs funding block allocation per pupil fell by an estimated 2.6% in real terms between 2013/14 and 2017/18, from £19,600 to £19,100. This does not include money local authorities might use from wider schools funding to support pupils with high needs.

The NAO has identified widespread overspending of high needs budgets by local authorities, mainly because more SEND pupils are attending special schools rather than mainstream schools. It found that Dedicated Schools Grant reserves – which support local authority school budgets more widely – are declining as a result, down by 86.5% between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

The NAO report subsequently stated that the “system for supporting pupils with SEND is not, on current trends, financially sustainable,” and that the Department for Education had not fully assessed the likely financial consequences of the 2014 reforms.

Not just a funding issue: Education Committee reports

The number of pupils with EHC plans in mainstream schools fell slightly between 2007 and 2017 but has now re-risen to its 2007 level.

In 2019, two Education Committee reports identified widespread problems in support for children and young people with SEND. The Committee’s report on school funding described SEND funding as “completely inadequate.” It recommended increased funding and an assessment of the cost implications of local authorities’ duties to maintain EHCPs up to age 25.

The Committee’s report on the SEND reforms identified not only funding issues, but systemic problems and accountability failures. This was despite endorsing the intentions and structure of the 2014 reforms.

The report found issues including:

  • A lack of joint working between responsible bodies
  • A need for culture change towards joint working, without which even significant funding increases might make little impact
  • An adversarial, hard-to-navigate system, with parents needing to fight for support they are entitled to, and too many parents having to take their case to tribunals – providing an unfair advantage to more knowledgeable parents
  • An absence of responsibility for driving change and accountability for failures.
The number of SEND tribunal cases has risen sharply in 2015/16 and a higher proportion are nore decided in favour of the appellant.

The Committee believed that local authorities would be able to fulfil their statutory duties to support children and young people with SEND if these challenges were met. They made recommendations for stronger accountability, including that Ofsted should make a clear judgement on the quality of SEND provision in school inspections.

Local area inspections

Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) have been inspecting local authority SEND support in England. Up to July 2019, according to the NAO report, they had found significant areas of weakness in half of the 94 local authorities inspected. The Education Committee recommended that this become an annual inspection process.

Challenges for the new Parliament

In September 2019, the Government announced a major review of support for children and young people with SEND in England, to mark five years of the reformed system’s operation. Ahead of this, there is already strong evidence of a system that is malfunctioning and under major financial strain.

Rising costs and wider school funding restrictions have put huge pressure on the high needs funding system. Local authorities’ ability to sustain the system with funding from elsewhere is dwindling. Extra funding alone, however, would not be enough. Support for children and young people with SEND can be disjointed, inconsistent, and hard to obtain. Improving this situation presents a significant challenge for the new Parliament.

Further reading

Insights for the new Parliament

This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.