Local government is facing many challenges and one that is particularly prevalent at present is the rapid and unprecedented rise in demand for services for children with special education needs (SEN).
The main contributing factor to this is the Children and Families Act 2014, which extended the statutory duty to provide support for all young people with SEN from birth to the age of 25. The act also introduced a new joint assessment process with education, health and care plans (EHCP) and increased parental choice. This raised parents’ expectations and encouraged more to push for an EHCP, with further perverse incentives such as increased benefits. Yet, with the additional demand and responsibility being placed on local government, no additional money accompanied the legislative changes and their consequences.
Figures published by the Department for Education show the extent of the rise over a relatively short period. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of children and young people with an EHCP or statement of SEN, increased across the country by 35% (from 237,111 to 319,819), with a similar rise in the number of young people placed in special schools. In Kent the number has increased by a staggering 51% in just three years.
Needless to say, across the country, SEN budgets are significantly overspending. The recently published Local Government Association and ISOS report “Have We Reached a ‘Tipping Point’? Trends in spending for children and young people with SEND in England” estimates that the national deficit on the high needs funding block has already risen to around £470m and will rise to £1.5bn by 2021. This says it all and it is a huge concern that local government must manage.
It is interesting to chart how the policy on SEN has changed over the last 20 years. In the late 90s, local authorities up and down the country were digesting Baroness Warnock’s landmark report, which encouraged councils to substantially reduce special school provision with inclusion in mainstream schools being the solution. In Kent, we went against the grain and actively pursued expanding our special schools, despite officers’ concerns that when Ofsted inspected the local education authority we would be heavily criticised. Indeed, we invested £150m in expanding and rebuilding all of our 26 special schools, including SEN units attached to both mainstream secondary and primary schools. It is my belief that we achieved an appropriate balance between mainstream inclusion and special school provision, delivering the best possible outcomes for young people with special educational needs.
It was some surprise that, in mid-2005, Baroness Warnock bravely called for a massive U-turn on her policy, stating that the closure of special schools and the inclusion in mainstream schools had failed.
I would now question whether the direction of travel as a consequence of the Children and Families Act 2014 is now placing too many young people in special schools that could be included in mainstream schools. And, as a consequence, an ever-greater proportion of the education budget is being subsumed.
The government clearly needs to review many of the perversities of the 2014 act and importantly fully fund the consequences. The recently announced call for evidence: “Funding for SEND and those who need alternative provision” from the DFE is a welcome move. The impending spending review is also the ideal opportunity to rectify this and I was most encouraged by the recent statement from Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury, when she said: “more funding is needed in special educational needs and children’s services, and I am looking at that in the spending review. Councils are spending more money on that, but I don’t want to see that squeezing the [mainstream] schools’ budget because we see that schools are under pressure. Those children with special educational needs are a real priority in the spending review.”
We eagerly await the spending review, whenever that may be.
Paul Carter (Con), leader, Kent CC