While some children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are receiving high-quality support, many others are not getting the help they should, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

The NAO determines that this is due to the growing financial pressures local authorities are coming under as the demand for supporting school pupils with the greatest needs rises.

In its latest report, the NAO estimates that the Department for Education (DfE) gave local authorities £9.4 billion to spend on support for pupils with SEND in 2018-19 – 24 percent of its total core grant for schools.

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While the DfE has increased school funding, the number of pupils identified as having the greatest needs – those in special schools and with education, health and care plans (EHC plans) in mainstream schools – rose by 10 percent between 2013-14 and 2017-18. However, the report notes that over the same period, funding per pupil dropped by 2.6 percent for those with high needs, and also decreased for those without EHC plans.

According to the report, local authorities are increasingly overspending their budgets for children with high needs. In 2017-18, 81.3 percent of councils overspent compared with 47.3 percent in 2013-14. The NAO says this is primarily driven by a 20 percent increase in the number of pupils attending special schools instead of mainstream education.

In addition, the report reveals that local authorities have also sharply increased the amount they spend on independent special schools – by 32.4 percent between 2013-14 and 2017-18. In some cases, this is due to a lack of appropriate places at state special schools.

In response to overspending against these budgets, local authorities are transferring money from their budgets for mainstream schools to support pupils with high needs. They are also using up their ringfenced school reserves, which have dropped by 86.5 percent in the last four years. The NAO underlines that this is not a sustainable approach.

The report outlines that stakeholders in the sector have raised concerns that the demand for special school places is growing because the system incentivises mainstream primary and secondary schools to be less inclusive. Mainstream schools are expected to cover the first £6,000 of support for a child with SEND from existing budgets and cost pressures can make them reluctant to admit or keep pupils with SEND.

Another barrier is that schools with high numbers of children with SEND may also appear to perform less well against performance metrics.

Pupils with SEND, particularly those without EHC plans, are more likely to be permanently excluded from school than those without SEND, notes the NAO. Pupils with SEND accounted for 44.9 percent of permanent exclusions in 2017/18.

Evidence also suggests that pupils with SEND are more likely to experience off-rolling – where schools encourage parents to remove a child primarily for the school’s benefit – than other pupils.

Additionally, the NAO has raised questions about the consistency of support across the country as there are substantial unexplained variations between different local areas. Joint Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspections indicate that many local areas are not supporting children as effectively as they should be.

The NAO recommends that the DfE should assess how much it would cost to provide the system for supporting pupils with SEND created by the 2014 reforms and use this to determine whether it is affordable.

The NAO believes that the Department needs better measures of the effectiveness of SEND support in preparing pupils for their adult lives and should make changes to funding and accountability arrangements to encourage and support mainstream schools to be more inclusive. It should also investigate the reasons for local variations to increase confidence in the fairness of the system, identify good practice and promote improvement.

Since the NAO’s report was completed on the 6th of September, the DfE announced a major review of support for children and young adults with SEND in education.

Gareth Davies, Head of the NAO, commented: “Access to the right support is crucial to the happiness and life chances of the 1.3 million pupils with SEND in England. While lots of schools, both special and mainstream, are providing high-quality education for pupils with SEND, it is clear that many children’s needs are not being met.

“I therefore welcome the Department for Education’s announcement last week of a review into support for children with SEND, following our engagement with them on this issue over recent months. We hope the review will secure the improvements in quality and sustainability that are needed.”

The National Audit Office (NAO) helps Parliament hold Government to account for the way it spends public money. It identifies ways that Government can make better use of public money to improve people’s lives.

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