Chronic underfunding is driving the SEND crisis in our schools


“The SEND crisis is complex and multi-faceted but at its heart lies many years of underfunding amid a growing complexity of need and fragmentation of provision.”

By Jenny Williams, National Education Union (NEU)

The SEND (special educational needs and disability) crisis in UK schools continues to impact adversely upon many thousands of the most vulnerable pupils in the country. The number of complaints upheld by England’s local government ombudsman (LGO) over SEN education has surged by more than 60% since last year.

As well as being an unacceptable situation for SEND pupils, this is costly to Local Authorities, many of which are on the verge of bankruptcy. Worryingly though, it appears there’s a danger that Local Authorities could be incentivised to pay the smaller LGO penalties rather than face the significant cost of some EHCP provision.

The SEND crisis is complex and multi-faceted but at its heart lies many years of underfunding amid a growing complexity of need and fragmentation of provision. Sadly, a chronic lack of investment has led to costly crisis management by authorities rather than investing in schools and services that would start to solve these problems.

Underinvestment in education isn’t just about schools funding. Crucially, excellent SEND provision relies on support services at every stage of a child’s life, both in early identification of need and in continued support for that child at home and school. There have been massive cuts and ongoing staff shortages in early intervention services (e.g. Portage, Health visitor services and Children’s centres), lengthy waiting lists for NHS services (such as CAMHS, Speech & Language, Occupational and Physiotherapy services) and a scarcity of Educational Psychologist availability.  (The DfE’s own research found that 88% of councils were struggling to recruit EPs, while a third were struggling to retain them). This has created an appalling situation in which SEND pupils fail to be identified quickly or accurately enough, or to be given timely and sustained support.

Not only is there is an increase in the number of SEND students being left without any school placement for more than a year, but specialist provisions report an increasing number of inappropriate placement of struggling pupils within their settings.

Stretched schools budgets mean that valuable therapeutic interventions, including Music and Play therapies, once commonplace in inclusive schools, are now becoming a rarity. Teaching Assistant numbers have steadily declined, as both the crises of funding and recruitment and retention of staff has hit schools.

Academisation and the privatisation of many SEND schools and services has fragmented a shared vision, leaving gaps in SEND provision. Alternative provision is often poor value for money, and sometimes used as a license for private companies to make a fortune out of vulnerable pupils; but with too few specialist placements in the public sector, local authorities have no choice but to go down this route.

The SEND crisis is also being fuelled by the government’s obsession with a data driven, mastery-style curriculum. Though the SEN code of practice states “High quality teaching, differentiated for individual pupils, is the first step in responding to pupils who have or may have SEN”, the reality is that differentiation is out of fashion, as a ‘one size fits all’ model of teaching has taken hold. The impact of this on SEND pupils is significant and is surely linked to the increasing numbers of EHCPs being sought. A mastery-style curriculum is being used as an excuse for cutting TA support in classes, worsening the impact on SEND pupils still further. Assessment and exam pathways are too narrow for many SEND pupils and do not allow them to achieve success.

Many SEND pupils are not receiving the education they need, but are being shoehorned into a system where they are set to fail. In Early years, formal testing and an over-emphasis on numeracy and phonics means young children do not access a developmentally appropriate play based curriculum. It is little wonder that many pupils start to fail at school from the outset and risk being identified with SEND unnecessarily. 

The government’s response in its March 23 document “SEND and AP Improvement Plan-Right Support, Right Place, Right Time” is both disingenuous and lacking in substance, attempting to shift the blame for its own failings onto those working in SEND. It is a document that states the blindingly obvious (e.g “we want to ensure that parents experience a less adversarial system”) but takes no responsibility for what has gone so badly wrong. There appears to be little new to offer schools in the document, apart from reference to unspecified ‘National Standards’ which will be published in 2025. Its target of achieving a 20% reduction in new EHCPs is all about cutting costs rather than addressing the causes of increasing EHCP applications.

Once again, all those involved in supporting young people with SEND will be expected to achieve more with fewer resources.

Campaigning on SEND issues is consistently a high priority for the National Education Union (NEU), the largest education union in England. Restoring to at least 5% of GDP spending on education, improving SEND funding, improving support services and curriculum/assessment reform are current campaign issues. In addition, the NEU provides access to high quality training on a range of SEND issues to its members.

Featured image: “Special education needs £££s”. Photo credit: National Education Union/Twitter

Leave a Reply