Issue 129 - 2023 Autumn term
ASCL's Julia Harnden and Margaret Mulholland urge the Chancellor to do the right thing in his Autumn Statement by pledging sufficient funding for some of our most vulnerable children.

SEND funding: crisis point

The government’s Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Improvement Plan, announced in March 2023, was intended to signal major changes on how the government would resolve the crises in the SEND system. It set out proposals to improve outcomes for children and young people, to improve the experience for families grappling with getting support and to deliver financial stability for a system under severe pressure. 

ASCL has long advocated for a more inclusive school system and welcomes the proposals, but there are serious concerns about the substance of the measures, and there is insufficient detail in the proposals to reassure leaders and parents that the appropriate resources will reach pupils and make the required difference. For example, the proposal to build 33 new special schools is welcome but is insufficient and won’t provide equitable provision across the country. 

There is no doubt that change is needed. The number of children and young people identified with special educational needs continues to rise. According to the DfE, 17.3% of the school population has an identified need, and in 2023 4.3% of pupils have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). When considering all children who have previously been identified on the SEND register at some point (in earlier years, for example), the figure is nearer 40%. 

Special schools are oversubscribed, and mainstream schools have struggled to provide for the growing numbers of children with identified special needs. Members tell us that the notional budget doesn’t provide a clear mechanism for targeting support where it is most needed. They say that they want nothing more than to be inclusive, but that effective inclusion is costly and requires a proper system of support in other areas too, including health and social care. 

SEND education must be resourced properly, with investment in effective infrastructure and access provided to therapists, inclusive spaces, specialist teachers, intervention programmes and school buildings with play spaces, sensory rooms, lifts, hoists, ramps, plus regular and extensive staff development and training. 

The reality is that improvement on this scale requires an implementation plan rather than an improvement plan. Practical steps, delivery mechanisms and timelines are needed to ensure that change is tested and achieved. 

Of course, system change is tricky and takes time to get right. The SEND green paper attempted to bring greater clarity to the system, but it’s what we now do with that information and aspiration that counts. The green paper’s theory of change depends upon significant investment into the system to provide services that meet pupils’ needs. 

Fair and effective distribution 

It is a fact that the amount of money going into the core schools budget for high needs has increased, but fair and effective distribution must be the goal. Distribution will only be fair when all children and young people have access to what they need to succeed, and effective when all available funding can be targeted towards improving the system for the children and young people that rely on it. 

During the current spending review period (April 2022 to March 2025), the high needs block will increase by £2.5 billion, however, significant sums are needed just to meet existing deficit recovery commitments associated with the Safety Valve (SV) programme and Delivering Better Value (DBV) programme. Both programmes are DfE interventions designed to support local authorities (LAs) on a journey back to financial sustainability. In March 2023, there were 34 authorities with SV agreements and the DBV programme has capacity for 55 authorities where high-needs block deficit is a reality. In other words, over 50% of LAs have accumulated deficits that require intervention as they battle to meet increasing demands on their SEND provision. This is a system that is broken. 

We understand that the education system must evidence value for money, but surely, to be truly effective, the agreed deficit management plans must deliver on both reducing debt and supporting young people to thrive? As things stand, it is unclear how much of the funding available for SV and DBV programmes is for investment in desperately needed system improvements, rather than deficit recovery. 

ASCL is not a lone voice in this debate. Working with other trade unions and organisations, we think that the system needs an additional £4.6 billion just to stop the situation getting any worse. This is because, since 2015, demand has continued to increase but funding has not kept pace with inflation. 

The risks attached to this precarious position are well understood. The DfE, in its own list of key risks, concluded, “High needs costs continue to increase significantly more than available funding. This results in the SEND and AP [alternative provision] system becoming unsustainable and threatening the overall financial stability of LAs.” 

Put simply, too much money is disappearing into the black hole of debt recovery and not reaching the frontline where it can make a difference to the children and young people that need it now. 

Conclusion 

The SEND Improvement Plan aims to provide the right quality support to young people with SEND, yet schools are telling us that their current funding predicaments are impacting on quality and safety. 

We question how we can stimulate growth and improvement from the base of an underfunded, poorly resourced system. The government has provided clear goals, but the strategies articulated in the improvement plan are insufficient to deliver a more inclusive and effective SEND system. In addition, there is no clear shopping list that attaches required funding to implementation. 

Focusing on the investment required in SEND, we make the following recommendations:

  • The government must publish a full implementation plan in conjunction with the improvement plan.
  • The government must invest in staff training for those working in SEND education.
  • The government must carry out a full review of SEND funding so that it reflects current needs, and as stipulated in ASCL’s position statements, including the following:
  • Review place funding value (currently £10,000).
  • Devise a high needs distribution formula that addresses the historic inequity in top-up funding that exists in different LA areas.
  • Provide sufficient additional funding to meet the aspirations of the SEND Review.
  • Provide urgent funding for specialist staffing and facilities required by both general FE and specialist colleges. 

At the time of writing, we await the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on 22 November – an opportunity for the government to finally address the SEND funding crisis and improve outcomes for all children and young people. 


Julia Harnden
ASCL Funding Specialist
@julia_harnden 

Margaret Mulholland
ASCL SEND and Inclusion Specialist
@MargaretMulhol2 

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