Mark Wilson: Postcode lottery of special educational needs funding crisis

I CONTINUE to read with interest The Yorkshire Post’s coverage of the funding crisis surrounding Special Educational Needs (SEN). As CEO of Wellspring Academy Trust, a community of 20 academies, I am at the coalface of this.

Do schools and teachers have sufficient support for pupils with special educational needs?

Eight are special and alternative academies, funded by a mixture of central government funding and ‘high needs block’ money paid by local councils, so we are in a unique position to observe the effects of the funding challenge.

One reason is purely the result of progress – and a cause for celebration. As healthcare continues to improve, babies and young people with highly complex conditions are surviving longer and requiring long-term specialist support. This creates an ongoing increase in the complexity of needs in school which is very expensive.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Officials in Leeds cite a 600 per cent increase in requests for SEN assessments over the past five years. More parents nationally are going to tribunal to secure a place for their child in a special school.

A further challenge is the lack of specialist places for youngsters permanently excluded from school. One of our regions has seen a 187 per cent increase in the number of young people permanently excluded in the past five years. Others are not far behind.

While this phenomenon is celebrated in some quarters as the necessary by-product of zero tolerance approaches to behaviour management, it creates obvious pressures elsewhere. These young people still need and deserve an education.

However, it often ends up having to be funded from the council’s high needs block. Recent news coverage of criminal activity linked to young people not in school ably demonstrates both their vulnerability and how essential it is to keep young people in the school system.

We work across five local authority areas, which exposes stark contrasts in funding arrangements for young people with additional or special needs. Local authorities ‘top-up’ central government funding – usually on the amount available in their high needs block rather than on the needs of individual children.

This leads to very different levels of funding in different areas – anywhere between £8,000 top-up to £30,000 per pupil, dependent upon a council’s overall budgetary position.

Where opportunities exist to save money, our experience is that councils are often reticent or unable to do so. In contrast to Leeds, where the city invests substantial sums in its special schools, our experience with other councils is that substantial financial pressures leave them unable or unwilling to sanction investment now.

A Freedom of Information request revealed councils in England spent more than £500m between them to educate just over 10,000 young people with SEN in out of area (mainly independent) specialist schools, at an average annual cost of around £47,000 per student.

While some of this is necessary due to the complexity of the needs involved, it is often much cheaper (not to mention more desirable) to educate a youngster within their own area.

And there are other costs. One Wellspring Special Academy faces an annual increase to staff costs of around £140,000, simply as a result of the nationally agreed pay increase for support staff.

To offset that, they benefit from a total funding increase of just £15,000 from the Government as the adjustment for inflation. What can be done? Our approach is:

To encourage special and alternative schools to join together in community to learn from one another and explore where we can find efficiencies in order to maintain the same high-quality provision at the front line;

to work alongside our local authority partners to achieve the best possible facilities and provision for young people with additional / special needs in their area;

to remain optimistic about the challenge of providing ever better provision at ever better value for money;

to advocate continually and passionately for the needs of every young person in our care.

Funding is unlikely to increase substantially any time soon so the only solution for organisations like ours is to work smarter and more collaboratively to ensure our most vulnerable pupils aren’t left behind – which only stores up bigger and most costly issues for our society in the future.

Mark Wilson is chief executive of the Wellspring Academy Trust which is based in Barnsley.