The are more than 220,000 children in London schools with a recognised special education need (SEN) that requires additional support from staff and local authorities. That’s 15 per cent of the school roll which, in a class of 30, could mean five children needing extra adult input. In most cases, the school will look to provide it through trained teacher interventions led by a school’s special needs coordinator (SENCo). But for children with complex needs a more detailed plan of action, called an education health care plan (EHCP) with additional specialist input, must be made.
An EHCP is seen by many parents and carers as a “golden ticket” as it can unlock more resources from the local authority to provide greater levels of specialist support than the school can. To get one, a range of assessments have to be made, evidence of the disability and the emerging education gaps collected, and a case developed. It is a hugely stressful process for parents and carers, it can take years, and rejections are common. Most parents and carers describe how they have to “fight” the system to get the support they believe their child should have.
Despite this, however, the number of EHCPs authorised in London has increased sharply, rising by more than 40 per cent since 2015/16 to over 55,000. The impact on local authorities’ financial pot that supports high needs SEN – the “high needs block” – has been dramatic, as demand has outstripped any new money injected into the system by the government, which admits that the deficit across the country is over £1 billion.
Three London boroughs have had to negotiate so-called “safety valve agreements” designed to close resulting large deficits in their schools budgets: Hammersmith & Fulham, Kingston and Richmond will between them receive £67m over the next four years in return for commitments to reduce costs. Four other local authorities in London may also be pressured into getting one. Elsewhere, Bury and Stoke on Trent have reached similar agreements.
The government wants to make changes, and recently launched a green paper for consultation – SEND review: Right Support, Right Place, Right Time. It is quite rightly seeking to address a number of high-level issues focused on delivering better outcomes and experiences for all children and young people with SEND (the “D” stands for “disabilities”). Making the system more transparent, accountable and effective through better working between education, health and social care partners are all necessary.
The green paper’s proposals will be difficult to implement and potentially put those London councils who have secured extra funding on a collision course with parents and carers. Kingston, for example, is expected to reduce its use of expensive independent special schools and to bring the children into maintained schools, while Hammersmith & Fulham is to increase early interventions to prevent the need for an EHCP in the first place. In effect, councils are being pressured into managing demand.
Ultimately, the green paper is looking to cap the growth of the high needs budget to deliver financial sustainability. The two main levers it proposes for achieving this are national standards and nationally set tariffs across the system, and more effective early intervention.
The first may rile local authorities, as it will curtail their ability to shape the way they allocate high needs funding, though the government says it put an end to what it calls the “inconsistency in current local authority arrangements”. Will the new national tariffs take account of London’s higher cost base? It seems unlikely, so children and young people in the capital may end up getting less support for each pound spent on them.
The second proposal will be broadly welcomed, as it is vital that additional needs are identified and addressed as soon as possible. The government is suggesting a number of elements to make this work, including a focus on early years with more effective ways of capturing the necessary information to identify any gaps in learning, better trained staff, and a new qualification so SENCos can be more effective at a senior leadership level. Depressingly, though, the early years training package for SENCos will only be available in those areas which appear to overlap with the education investment areas set out in the levelling-up white paper, none of which include any London boroughs.
Some children will need additional support from other specialist professionals in health and social care, and here the story is less positive. Sadly, the green paper admits that government has only limited data and evidence on the precise demand for therapy for children and young people with SEN, which means it can’t tell where the gaps in provision are. There’s a commitment for more work to lead to better workforce planning, but in the meantime the long waiting times for help are likely to continue.
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