MPs scathing in their assessment of DfE's grip on SEND system pressures

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

​A scathing report by cross-party MPs has concluded that the government “does not have a grip” on the mounting pressure in the SEND system, with pupils more likely to be excluded and thousands of families missing out on crucial support.

Of the 1.3 million school-age children in England who have SEND, only one in five (around 271,000) has legally enforceable entitlements set out in an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).

This means that around 1.04 million SEND children have no guarantee of the support they need – of which the vast majority attend cash-strapped mainstream schools.

MPs on the House of Commons’ Committee of Public Accounts (CPA) warn that the EHCPs have become a “golden ticket” as “desperate parents scramble to secure adequate support” for their SEND children.

They highlight flaws in the SEND funding system, which act as a disincentive to enrolling pupils with SEND” and the fact that 47 out of 94 local authority areas have been judged to have “significant weaknesses” when it comes to their SEND support.

MPs on the committee are now demanding that the Department for Education (DfE) act to remedy the problems as part of its SEND Review, which was launched in September and has yet to report its findings.

The report states: “We remain to be convinced that the DfE has sufficient grip on what needs to be done to tackle the growing pressures on the SEND system. In September, the DfE announced a major review of SEND provision, promising to improve services and address what it described as the ‘postcode lottery’ that children and families often face.

“The DfE has given few details about the review and has not indicated when it will be completed. However, the weaknesses in support for children with SEND are already well-known – what we expect from the DfE now is concrete action to address these significant failings.”

It is not the first time MPs have slammed failings in the SEND system. In October, the Education Select Committee published an equally damning report concluding that poor implementation of the SEND reforms has resulted in “confusion, at times unlawful practice, bureaucratic nightmares, buck-passing, no accountability, strained resources, and adversarial experiences”.

It also highlighted how children without EHCPs but on SEN Support were being let down and their needs going unmet. It revealed that huge pressure on the EHCP application system had led to unlawful practices by local authorities, such as rationing and gatekeeping, leaving many children’s needs unidentified and/or unmet.

The SEND reforms entered legislation in 2014, seeking to place children and families at the heart of decision-making. They saw the introduction of new 0-25 EHCPs, replacing the system of SEN Statements. A SEND Code of Practice was introduced, parents were given more control of budgets and decision-making for their children, and local authorities were required to produce a Local Offer detailing the available support for SEND.

Five years on from the implementation of the reforms and the CPA report points to high exclusion rates for pupils with SEN as evidence that many mainstream schools are not coping.

It reports that 44.9 per cent of permanent exclusions and 43.4 per cent of fixed-period exclusions in 2017/18 were pupils with SEND. MPs say that good EHCPs can help prevent exclusions as they ensure pupils get the right support.

The report adds: “EHCPs have become a ‘golden ticket’ that parents fight for to secure access to adequate support for their children. Children with SEND but who do not have EHCP risk missing out on the support they need, especially in mainstream schools that are under significant financial pressure. Parents still feel left out of decisions that affect their children, and they do not have full confidence in the system.”

The MPs says that there is little financial incentive for cash-strapped schools to be inclusive. Currently, schools must cover the first £6,000 of extra support for each pupil with SEND from their core budgets. Local authorities can allocate additional funding to support mainstream schools with high numbers of SEND pupils, but in 2018/19 only 85 of 150 local authorities budgeted for this kind of support.

Funding is certainly under huge pressure in the SEN sector. Last year, the Local Government Association (LGA) said that in the five-year period since the SEND reforms came in, councils have overseen an increase of nearly 50 per cent in children with EHCPs or SEN Statements.

As part of the government’s recent pledge to raise school funding levels by £7.1 billion by 2023 (compared to 2019/20 levels) it was confirmed that an additional £780 million would be going to high needs funding from 2020/21.

However, the general feeling in the sector is that this will not be enough. A report by the ISOS Partnership for the LGA identified an anticipated deficit in local authority high needs budgets totalling between £889 million and £1.2 billion in 2020 (Parish et al, 2018).

The CPA report also highlights “significant unexplained disparities” in SEND identification. For example, twice as many boys as girls are identified as having SEN and there is significant variation by ethnicity too.

Commenting on the report, Geoff Baron, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, recognised the “amazing job” many school staff do for young people with SEND, but said schools needed “more backing from the government in the form of sufficient funding and a system which is more streamlined and less bureaucratic”.

He added: “We welcome the fact that the government has launched a review of the SEN system, and the allocation of more funding in 2020/21, but we need to be clear that this extra money is not enough to meet demand, and the financial strain will continue.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “The situation for schools supporting children with SEN over the last decade has been bleak. Not only have school budgets been decimated, there have been severe cuts to local authority health and social care provision. Even with recent additional funding increases, schools have still been left struggling to meet the needs of the pupils who need the greatest level of support.

“A child with an EHCP, or official diagnosis of SEND, often requires costly specialist support but more often than not schools do not receive any extra money to meet their needs. Perversely, it is the most inclusive schools that are most severely financially penalised. This situation is not sustainable and is putting enormous pressure on both SEND provision in mainstream settings and special schools with limited places.”

CPA chair Meg Hillier MP said: “Pupils with SEND deserve the same quality of education and to get the same value from our education system as their peers. Disturbing disparities in identifying pupils with SEND, and in provision for them, point to underlying problems that can only be addressed through proper data collection and information. These children, already facing extra hurdles and challenges in this life, must not find themselves discriminated against several times over.”

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