SEND funding is trapped in a vicious downward spiral, we need a national strategy
The money announced by the Government last year isn’t enough to make the SEND funding crisis go away, we need to make government, schools, health and social services work more effectively, writes Munira Wilson MP.
Support for children at school with special educational needs or a disability (SEND) is faltering. It is trapped in a vicious downward spiral. Underfunding leads to delays and indecision. Meanwhile, thousands of children miss out on the assistance they need.
Conservative school cuts since 2015 have taken their toll. It’s much easier to axe support staff than it is to sack a classroom teacher. So that extra support needed by a child with less complex SEND, such as dyslexia or mild autism, is slowly disappearing from schools.
It’s putting councils under increasing strain. Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) – meant to be reserved for pupils with the most complex needs – are now sometimes the only option for parents to get the help their child needs. It’s meant more demand and more delays.
I don’t blame any parent who tries every option to ensure their child’s needs are being met. But the reality is that few parents have the time, resources and confidence to navigate complex appeals, ombudsmen and tribunals. When the system can’t get things right the first time, it is children from the most disadvantaged families that lose out the most.
When both schools and councils are under serious financial strain, perverse incentives in our SEND funding system start to emerge. Councils expect schools to cough up £6,000 before they will consider a pupil for an EHCP, so headteachers are more reluctant to send children for a diagnosis. When neither councils, schools or health authorities have cash to spare, it is no surprise when they write EHCPs that are bland and vague, failing to guarantee what support the child is entitled to. It leads to more delay and indecision.
Councils cannot continue in such a dire financial position. My own local council – Richmond upon Thames – was running a £11 million deficit in its budget for children with high needs last year. Its only option is to siphon off core schools funding or cut other council services. Yet it sees little of the extra money announced by the Government because the funding formula does not reflect directly the areas of greatest SEND need.
Meanwhile, children miss out. Freedom of Information requests obtained by the BBC found that around four in 10 EHCPs were not being finalised on time. One child in Suffolk waited almost three years for an EHCP. By law, they should get one in 20 weeks.
In January 2019, more than 1,200 school-aged children on an EHCP were awaiting a place in the education setting that the EHCP entitled them to.
The Government is starting to address the problem, but the money they announced last year isn’t enough to make the SEND funding crisis go away.
So what can be done? At the last election, Liberal Democrats campaigned to start removing some of the perverse incentives in the system, such as by wiping some of the £6,000 schools are expected to pay for each child with SEND. We shouldn’t be punishing schools from doing the right thing.
Councils need to get the basics right. EHCPs need to be delivered on time and fulfil their original purpose: a legally binding document setting out what support a child is entitled to, specific to them and tailored to their needs. But we can only expect councils to do this if they have adequate staff and resources.
A national SEND strategy would provide welcome Government leadership in this area. It would encourage councils to share SEND services where relevant, and set out steps to make central and local government, schools, health and social services work more effectively, rather than constantly pass the buck between them.
SEND is a complex policy area – but the education and opportunities we give to our most disadvantaged children depend on us getting the system right. Liberal Democrats are campaigning to make sure that the Government is prepared to tackle those challenges head-on.
Munira Wilson is a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Twickenham and Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Health and Social Care.