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Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England

National Audit Office report

23 September 2019
Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England

The National Audit Office (NAO) has reported on support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in schools, since Education and Health Care Plans (EHCP) were introduced in 2014. These specify a child’s special educational needs, necessary outcomes, and provision for meeting those needs. Local authorities and the NHS have duties to secure social care, special educational and health provisions in these plans. The report found that support affects pupils’ educational attainment, well-being and future prospects. Many are not being properly supported – those without EHCPs are left particularly vulnerable.

School funding has increased since 2014, but has been overtaken by rising pupil numbers, so real-terms funding per pupil has fallen; high-needs funding is prioritised, but has also reduced in real-terms and local authorities are increasingly overspending on budgets. This is largely due to an increase in pupils with EHCPs attending special schools – partly due to more parental involvement in decisions about the right school and funding constraints reducing mainstream schools’ capacity to support pupils with high needs. Local authorities pay independent school fees if an EHCP deems it necessary, and there are no places at state-funded schools. Since 2014, the proportion of pupils with an EHCP rose from 2.8% to 3.1%, while those identified as needing SEND support with no EHCP, dropped 17.1%. The Department for Education (DfE) views this decrease as a reflection on changes in identifying and recording pupils with SEND, not changes in the wider population, implying some pupils’ needs are being assessed differently.

The NAO found the current system for supporting pupils with SEND is financially unsustainable, noting many local authorities are overspending on their high-needs budgets in attempts to meet demand. Pressures on the system include incentivising mainstream schools to be less inclusive, increased demand for special school places, a growth in the use of independent schools and reduced funding per pupil, making it less sustainable. The NAO recommends the DfE act urgently to make improvements to the quality and sustainability needed to achieve value for money.

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