The needs of many disabled pupils in England are not being met, while councils are under growing financial pressure because more children are attending special schools, parliament’s spending watchdog has warned.
The report from the National Audit Office (NAO) says the number of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) who attend special schools or alternative provision rose by more than a fifth between 2014 and 2018.
It comes after nine years of policies from Conservative-led governments that have been aimed at educating more of the 1.3 million pupils in England with SEND in segregated special schools.
Those policies have followed the party’s 2010 general election manifesto (PDF), which pledged to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools”.
The report from NAO yesterday (Wednesday) warns that, although the Department for Education (DfE) has increased school funding, particularly for pupils with high needs, this has not kept pace with the rise in the number of pupils, while local authorities are “increasingly overspending their budgets for supporting pupils with high needs”.
It adds: “The main reason why local authorities have overspent their high-needs budgets is that more pupils are attending special schools.”
The report says there was a 2.6 per cent real terms reduction in funding for each pupil with high needs in the four years between 2013-14 and 2017-18.
At the same time, local authorities have “sharply” increased the amount they spend on independent special schools, with a real terms increase of nearly a third (32.4 per cent) between 2013-14 and 2017-18.
NAO says there are concerns that demand for special school places is growing because “the system incentivises mainstream primary and secondary schools to be less inclusive”, with mainstream schools expected to cover the first £6,000 of support for a child with SEND from their existing budgets.
Schools with high numbers of children with SEND may also appear to be performing less well academically in government performance tables.
About one-fifth of pupils with SEND have education, health and care (EHC) plans, which give them legally enforceable entitlements to support, with the other four-fifths identified as needing a lower level of SEN support at school.
The report says NAO is concerned that many pupils with SEND “are not being supported effectively, and that pupils with SEND who do not have EHC plans are particularly exposed”.
The report also points out that pupils with SEND – particularly those without EHC plans – are more likely to be permanently excluded from school than pupils without SEND.
In 2017-18, children with SEND made up 45 per cent of permanent exclusions, while survey evidence in 2019 suggested that pupils with SEND are more likely to experience off-rolling – in which mainstream schools force pupils off their books to boost their academic results – than other children.
Among its recommendations, the NAO report says the government should make changes to “encourage and support mainstream schools to be more inclusive in terms of admitting, retaining and meeting the needs of pupils with SEND”.
And it says DfE should share good practice on how mainstream schools can meet the needs of pupils with SEND who do not have EHC plans.
It also calls on DfE to assess how much it would cost to ensure proper funding of the system for supporting pupils with SEND created by the 2014 reforms that introduced EHCPs.
Last week, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced a review of support for children with SEND.
But NAO made it clear to Disability News Service yesterday that DfE had seen an early draft of its report in late July. This suggests Williamson’s decision to launch a review was heavily influenced by NAO’s concerns.
Simone Aspis (pictured), policy and campaigns coordinator for The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said: “ALLFIE welcomes the NAO’s conclusion that the current SEND funding system is financially unsustainable as a result of increased spending on segregated education provision that often leaves disabled pupils with poor outcomes, and recommends that government invest in mainstream education and removes the funding bias away from segregated education.”
She said this supported the recommendations of the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) that the UK government should invest in a fully inclusive education system, as required under its obligations in article 24 of the UN disability convention.
She said: “The DfE have announced another SEND review. We see all these reviews as a distraction from the government’s total disregard for the continuing systematic attack on disabled pupils’ and students’ human rights to inclusive education.
“We do not need any more reviews. We need action now.”
What was needed, she said, was for the government to implement CRPD’s recommendations around removing the current “parallel education system and have one sustainable inclusive education service that includes everyone regardless of ability”.
A DfE spokesperson said yesterday that the department was not able to respond within the deadline set by DNS to questions about the report, including whether successive Tory-led governments were to blame for the rise in the number of pupils in special schools because of the “end the bias” pledge by the Conservatives in 2010.
But she said in a statement: “Helping all children and young people reach their potential is one of the core aims of this government, including those with special educational needs.
“That is why the prime minister has committed to providing an extra £700 million next year to make sure these children get an education that helps them develop and thrive as adults.
“We have improved special educational needs support to put families at the heart of the system and give them better choice in their children’s education, whether in mainstream or special school.
“Last week we launched a review of these reforms, to make sure every child, everywhere, gets an education that prepares them for success.”
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