Margaret Eaton: Special needs pupils face perfect storm over funding

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EDUCATION is absolutely essential to improving social mobility in our society and giving people the opportunity to succeed in life. As a nation, we can provide a good education for our children only if we invest in our schools, colleges, universities and local councils.

We also need to give these institutions certainty and control over their funding, as this will help them plan their finances better in the future.

The Government has acted on some of the concerns raised by schools, councils and education charities. In July 2017, the Department for Education announced an additional £1.3bn for schools for 2018-19 and 2019-20, meaning that no school would lose out under the new national funding formula.

The 2018 Budget also committed to a further £400m for schools in England to spend on equipment and facilities. These were positive decisions and we should give credit to the Government for listening. However, there are challenges ahead and things that we need to do differently.

I turn my attention to the support for our children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, commonly referred to as SEND. It is a crucial part of the debate on school funding.

SEND services provide vital support for some of the most vulnerable pupils, and of course parents rightly expect to see their child get the best possible education.

Councils are doing all they can to make sure that this support is available. However, we are reaching a point where the money is simply not keeping up with demand and schools are getting into financial difficulties because of increasing demands.

Government figures show that the number of children with SEND continues to rise. The proportion of pupils with SEND who attend special schools increased from 5.6 per cent in 2012 to 8.8 per cent in 2017, and the number of children with education, health and care plans, or SEND statements, has increased by 21.1 per cent since 2014.

Councillor Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, has warned that, if we do not act soon, we risk creating a perfect storm – a storm in which schools will no longer be able to provide the extra support that pupils with SEND need, and this in turn will affect other pupils and teachers, who will get less support in the classroom.

The LGA, for its part, has commissioned the Isos Partnership, an independent consultancy, to undertake research and to analyse further the high-needs funding pressures facing councils. The initial findings show that councils are facing a high-needs funding shortfall of £536m for 2018-19.

Meanwhile, research by the Education Policy Institute found that over the four years up to the end of the last financial year the proportion of local authority-maintained secondary schools in deficit nearly trebled from 8.8 per cent in 2013-14 to 26.1 per cent in 2016-17.

The average local authority-maintained secondary school deficit also rose over a seven-year period, from £292,822 in 2010-11 to £374,990 in 2016-17. Since the Children and Families Act became law in 2014, councils have seen a significant increase in demand for SEND support from families, but this has not been matched by an increase in funding.

The Government has delivered a number of important reforms and provided additional resources to our schools. This is to be welcomed and I hope it demonstrates that ministers do listen when concerns are raised and will listen to those of us now raising serious issues over SEND.

I would like the Government to show further leadership on this issue and find new money in the local government finance settlement to help address the funding pressures on SEND budgets. This will go some way to resolving the immediate pressures facing schools and councils.

In the longer term, we need to work with schools, education charities, the LGA and local government to review high-needs funding and make sure there is sufficient money available to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND.

A mainstream education is the best option for many children and young people with SEND, as well as a better use of resources than specialist provision is. For this vision to become reality, however, mainstream schools must have sufficient capacity and funding to meet the needs of all children.

Margaret Eaton is a Tory peer. A former leader of Bradford Council, she spoke in a House of Lords debate on education. This is an edited version.