Dedicated staff are not enough: barriers to learning for pupils with special needs persist 5 years after introducing SEND reform

Dr Anna Tsakalaki is a Lecturer in Education and Director of the PG Cert SENCo course at the University of Reading. Here, she reviews the findings of the recent National Audit Office’s report on the support of pupils with SEND in England in the light of inclusive practice nationally and abroad.

recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found that local authorities are struggling to deliver the required support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. The report finds that the current system is not financially sustainable.

The reform of special education provision was introduced with the current SEND code of practice (2014). Changes to the previous system were implemented for a “simpler and more joined up” system covering from birth to 25 years. Special needs statements were replaced by Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP) with the aim to bring together an interdisciplinary team of practitioners and experts working together to offer holistic support to individuals with SEND.

Support is now being funded by a single budget for each family and councils must outline the provision available to all individuals with SEND in their area in a publicly available “local offer”. Families and young people with SEND are given a more substantial role in choosing among available options in their area. But in practice, the benefits of this joint-up approach are at risk, as funding has not increased in line with demand.

Indeed, the NAO report finds that the number of pupils that qualify for an EHCP has risen by almost 20% since the changes took effect. Recent research by the National Education Union found that although funding for students with high needs increased, it has not kept pace with the rise in numbers of students qualifying for an EHCP. The NAO report confirms this finding. It states that since 2014, £349m in extra funding has been given to support this group of students. However, the growth in the number of pupils with SEND resulted in a fall in the funding per pupil by 3% (from an average of £19,600 to £19,100 per pupil).

Funding impacts support

This means that – despite the dedicated hard work of staff at local schools – many are struggling to provide the support that they want to give, and that parents expect. The NAO’s findings reflect the day-to-day experiences we hear from the field, as academics in education. Reports of overworked and under-resourced staff are common. Our Special Educational Needs Coordinator students (SENCOs) are responsible for supporting pupils with special needs in schools around the country. They are telling us that they lack access to local authority experts, such as educational psychologists or behaviour specialists. Limited financial support results in often having to use resources that have been used in the past for pupils with similar SEND in their school, or resources that are available freely.

To try and find the funding to support students, the NAO report states that local authorities are drawing on their dedicated schools grant reserves (money which is ring-fenced to be used for education) from the block grant from previous years. But these resources are being outstripped by the growing numbers of pupils with special needs.

Local authorities are left with no option but to use the current general school budget (called “school block funding”) to support pupils with SEND, which means less money to spend on the rest of the student body.

The NAO report questions whether schools will no longer want to have students with special needs, if it means that they will have less money for their mainstream pupils. Indeed, a recent report on exclusions found an increase in “off rolling” – an informal agreement whereby parents concede to remove children with special needs from the school roll, when it’s in the best interests of the school and not the pupil.

Inclusion – for whom?

The lack of support available is affecting which schools pupils with special educational needs and disabilities attend. Ofsted rates local authority special schools quite highly (92% rated “good” or “outstanding” overall). This compares to 85% of mainstream schools and only 78% of independent special schools. Yet the number of pupils with special needs going to independent special schools is increasing – likely due to the lack of effective support and provision in mainstream schools.

Stark figures on school exclusion also indicate that pupils’ needs are not being met, which is preventing them from engaging with the education provided. Although pupils with special educational needs and disabilities make up only 15% of a school, they make up almost half of all exclusions: 45% of permanent exclusions and 43% of exclusions over a fixed period. Clearly, these pupils aren’t learning and aren’t happy in school. There is increasing evidence from international research showing that inclusion of students with SEND in mainstream education doesn’t pose a negative impact on the academic achievement of their non-SEND peers. On the contrary, research indicates that it has the potential to benefit all students in their academic, social and emotional development.

All children have a right to be educated with their peers, but schools must have the right support and funding to do this. Research conducted internationally by the OECD emphasises the impact of factors, such as teachers’ feeling supported and valued, on the effectiveness of schooling for all children. In line with the changes in provision introduced in England in 2014, parents quite rightfully advocate for their own children. Inclusion of all in mainstream education requires adequate funding for schools, so they are not put in the position of having to choose between supporting pupils with SEND and spending on resources for the rest of the school.

The recent NAO report reflects the day-to-day reality for children with SEND in mainstream schools, which are themselves confronted every day with difficult choices about how to allocate limited resources. Clearly, the aspirations of the 2014 reforms have not been realised. Now, the government’s guidance needs to be better aligned with teaching and to support inclusive practices that have been shown to work effectively for all.

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