By Daniel Norman
There are now more Special Education Needs and Disabilities — SEND — children in the British school system than ever. According to a July 2023 report from the Education Statistics Service, 17.3% of children across all key stages have been identified as having learning difficulties. Of these children, one in four is attached to an Education, Health and Care Plan (ECHP), a specialist pathway that sets more specific provisions. Since 2018, these numbers have only grown and pose a critical challenge for policymakers: how to provide a school experience for these pupils that is both safe and enriching.
However, the government has failed to plug gaps in SEND funding and expand support for schools that need it. This has allowed grave issues to reach a critical mass that, without focusing on both short-term mitigation and long-term reform, could damage the already tough prospects of hundreds of thousands of children.
Underfunding and Resource Challenges in Supporting SEND Students
Currently, there is a monumental funding deficit across the country to support SEND students. A 2022 analysis by the County Councils Network and the Society of County Treasurers estimated that the existing £2.4b ‘funding gap’ would increase to £3.6b by the 24/25 academic year. This crippling deficit means that funds are used only to balance the books and prevent a debt spiral that would weaken the financial integrity of schools rather than to improve the experiences of SEND students.
This reduces schools’ staffing access, leaving them unable to deliver on particular needs. Across mainstream education, there is a severe lack of specialist teaching assistants trained to work with high-needs pupils, meaning that support is often not explicitly targeted. This is exacerbated by a lack of funding for SEND training courses for existing teachers and support staff due to expensive up-front costs and salaries to hire replacements. Compounding this issue are the long waiting lists mainstream schools face to access support consultants such as speech therapists and educational psychologists.
The impacts of this bottleneck are threefold. Many pupils cannot attain diagnoses, preventing them from accessing an ECHP. This drives parents into the private sector for care, which, according to a 2023 SchoolsWeek investigation, may cost up to £140 per hour of consultation and be less cohesive with school structures. Finally, the high costs may prevent families from effectively supporting their SEND children at home.
Schools are thus faced with low funding, high costs, and an increasing number of SEND pupils. Fewer resources must be made to go further. This challenge is rarely made easier by children joining special schools due to years-long waiting lists.
Many of these issues can be traced back to previous failures in government policy, mainly the austerity measures first instituted by the Cameron Ministry in 2010. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ 2022 report, education funding per pupil fell by 9% in real terms from 2009/2010 to 2019/2020. Wages have similarly declined, with some teachers experiencing up to a 14% cut in real terms. This has led to chronic staff shortages.
Due to the specialist staff needed, SEND pupils have been hit particularly hard. According to a June 2023 Department of Education report, school consultant authorities are experiencing significant recruitment and retention issues, leading to a critical lack of educational psychologists. This restricts access to diagnoses and support for SEND children, parents, and teachers.
Attempts at reform began in March 2023 with the publication of the SEND and Alternate Provisions Improvement Plan. This brief outlined plans to amend the 2014 Children and Families Act and create a financial Safety Valve, a program to reduce council deficits and disperse targeted SEND spending to schools in need. However, these measures are only accessible by fifty-five councils and continue to be used to pay down debts rather than support schools. Despite committing to building new dedicated SEND schools, there is substantial evidence to suggest this will be an ineffective policy. Alongside the already existing shortage of support staff, there are more than double the vacancies for special needs teachers and teaching assistants compared to their mainstream counterparts. What is the point of building new schools if the existing ones are understaffed and underfunded?
On balance, the current government SEND policy has failed to ameliorate immediate concerns and mitigate the longer-term consequence of underinvestment. However, volunteer charity organisations go some way to providing schools with the needed access and resources. ADD-Vance, for example, offers consultation and teacher training that is desperately needed.
Ensuring Access and Building Skills
Policy solutions must take both a short and long-term view to improve services for SEND children. The construction of specialist schools, while desperately needed, will not improve access to targeted help quickly enough. In the short term, there must be an emphasis on reforms to improve recruitment, retention, and training, especially for teaching assistants,
One such policy solution is the introduction of special school access programs. Weekly support sessions for parents and children can build on existing infrastructure for children’s centres and be easily organised by the school district. This would provide critical access to educational psychologists and speech therapists for children while carers seek guidance from SEND professionals.
It is also vital that pitfalls in staff shortage and training are overcome. To encourage SEND teacher training, government funding could be earmarked for courses transitioning teaching assistants to fully qualified teachers, each costing around £4,000/yr. This could be supplemented by increasing the hours spent on SEND learning for mainstream teacher training and mandating a SEND placement during the first year of teaching. In mainstream schools, whole-school INSET days could be highly effective for imparting basic training to the entire faculty, allowing them to better support the special needs children in their classes.
However, these plans do not solve the deeper issue of stagnant special school places coupled with a rising number of SEND students. The government must act quickly and efficiently to build, expand, and staff schools before the system reaches a breaking point.