Across London there are over 230,000 children and other young people with recognised special education needs (SEN). Those of some 60,000 of them are so complex that they require a lot of extra assistance.
This will be set out in their education and health care plan (EHCP) and could, for instance, include a dedicated adult to help them in school or special services such as speech therapy.
For the others, schools have to provide additional support as best they can within their existing teaching structures and with the resources they have – part of a school’s funding includes a notional, but not ringfenced, SEN budget based on a centrally determined formula.
It has long been recognised that schools are struggling to provide the levels of care and support they wish to as the number of children with SEN continues to grow. In London, those with the most complex needs have increased by 50 per cent since 2015/16. And although having an EHCP brings more funding to a school to help a child, the amounts are often insufficient. For example, the plan might provide money for an additional adult but only for a fixed number of hours, leaving the school having to cross-subsidise to ensure the child is supported for the whole week.
The government has recognised the need for extra cash as demand has grown. It recently boosted its high needs budget by 13 per cent to over £9 billion. Funding will continue to grow in 2023/24 and 2024/25, but by less than over the previous three years.
The Department for Education is asking local authorities to assume an increase of five per cent in their total high needs block allocation between 2022/23 and 2023/24, and one of three per cent year on year beyond that. However, these increases are not guaranteed and they fall well below the average annual rate of growth in EHCPs of around nine per cent over the past three years.
Furthermore, they are failing to keep up with the rising cost pressures on local authorities and ultimately schools. Overall, local authorities are estimated to be between £1 and £2 billion over budget on everyday school funding largely driven by soaring SEN demands.
The government recognises that the current system is financially unsustainable and could, over the medium-term, threaten the financial stability of local authorities. At the heart of its recently published SEND improvement plan is a desire to reduce the number of EHCPs so they are “brought under control”.
A raft of measures is set out to achieve this, including early identification and intervention, with more training for early years teachers, better support for maintained schools to support children with SEN and a set of national standards to determine thresholds for financial support.
But many of those will take years to come to fruition, and in the short term the government is choosing to deal with schools’ deficits in one of two ways: through a “safety valve agreement” which sets specific goals for reducing spending on SEN children in return for bail-out money, or through a “delivering best value” process which entails the local authority bidding for small sums to trial new processes for getting “better value” out of its SEN spending. Currently, ten London boroughs have safety valve agreements and eight have signed up for “delivering best value”.
It is understandable that the government wants to work with local authorities on getting the most out of the money it provides. But as the campaign body Special Needs Jungle has pointed out in its commentary on the SEND Improvement Plan, “Any reduction in EHCPs should be a positive by-product of a well-functioning system, not the goal. The goal should be to ensure children with SEND get the support they need, whether they need a plan or not.”
The harm caused by squeezing the number of EHCPs and SEND support more broadly is the friction it creates between parents and carers fighting to get the best they are entitled to, schools trying to provide it and local authorities trying to reduce budgets. This is damaging trust between parents and schools and affecting the life chances of the children and young people in question.
If a child has its application for an EHCP turned down by the local authority or there is dispute over what a plan contains, the parents can appeal to a tribunal. But that is a long, difficult and often exasperating process. It can take a year before a decision is made, and the number of tribunals has increased at a startling rate. In the academic year 2021/22, 11,000 SEN appeals were recorded – an increase of 29 per cent compared to the previous year. In the same period, 9,100 SEN appeals were disposed of, an increase of 20 per cent on 2020/21.
Of the cases decided by tribunal, a staggering 96 per cent were resolved in favour of the appellant, meaning the evidence for providing additional support was strong but the local authority disputed it. With local authorities under pressure to reduce EHCPs, cases going to tribunal are likely only to increase. There is already a backlog of 5,600 cases.
Without the right kinds of support and care, children and young people with SEN can be seen as nothing more than unruly and disruptive. Some schools may use disciplinary processes to manage them. Recent data show increasing numbers of pupils being permanently excluded or suspended. In London last spring nearly 200 children and young people were permanently excluded, and there were just under 20,000 suspensions. Comparisons across recent years have to be treated with caution, given the pandemic restrictions, but the rate of suspensions does seem to be rising markedly.
The highest rate of suspensions is among SEN pupils who lack an EHCP – 631 per 10,000 – followed by those who do have one (591 per 10,000). This compares with 166 per 10,000 for those with no SEN. The most common reason given for suspension or permanent exclusion is persistent disruptive behaviour. If all behaviour is communication, then these children are trying to tell us they need help. We need a system that better provides it.
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