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(UK) $5.9B SPED deficit: "education's deepest crisis"

May 19, 2024, Guardian: Education’s deepest crisis is being ignored by Westminster – and even harsher cuts are on the way 

As an illustration of the gap between high politics and everyday reality, last week’s news stories about education policy were grimly perfect. The government was making a lot of noise about new restrictions on sex education, many of which seemed to answer entirely confected fears. On his visit to Essex, Keir Starmer launched his weirdly titled “first steps”, which included the recruitment of 6,500 new teachers for England’s schools – an indication of good intentions, but not much of an answer to the fact that, at the last count, 40,000 of them left the profession in a single year. Meanwhile, the education system’s most urgent and awful crisis continued to grind on, with barely a murmur from either of the main Westminster parties.

After long years of failure, provision for children and young people with special needs and disabilities – or Send – is now in a state of complete breakdown. On Friday, the BBC ran a report about widespread local delays in providing kids with the support they need, which was placed in news bulletins. One of its case studies centred on Freddie, a five-year-old from Staffordshire recovering from a stroke caused by complications from chickenpox, and unable to attend school full-time without proper help. One curt quotation from his mum said it all: “He’s been neglected for a year. He’s been completely forgotten about by the system.”

It is hard to know where to start. At one end of the age range, we are now reaping the consequences of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s effective abolition of New Labour’s Sure Start programme, and what that meant: the sidelining of early intervention, and special needs only being acknowledged when kids reach crisis point. In our schools, extra support is falling victim to a mounting shortage of teaching assistants. Thanks to austerity, councils are chronically short of key staff, such as educational psychologists. As far as the NHS is concerned, such vital services as speech and language tutoring and occupational therapy are frequently impossible to access; there are also long waiting lists for diagnoses of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In secondary schools, official thinking that now emphasises academic attainment and “discipline” pushes those with special needs even further towards the margins – and, sometimes, out of comprehensive education and into specialist provision, which can involve big transport costs. Here, moreover, there are yet more problems: whatever the government’s panicked pledges of an eventual increase in school places, two-thirds of England’s special schools are currently full up, which is one of the reasons why there are increasing numbers of news stories about children with special needs being left with no school allocation at all.

These failures are encapsulated in the Send meltdown’s defining fact: that councils’ special needs budgets are now deep in the red, and the Whitehall machine is pushing them towards the kind of cuts that will tilt the system even further into failure. England’s current combined national special needs “deficit” is put at about £4.6bn [$5.9B]. To close the gap, the Department for Education has been rolling out money-saving schemes with such innocuous titles as Safety Valve and Delivering Better Value – and, as what they entail is exposed (have a look, for example, at the forensic work done by the brilliant website Special Needs Jungle), sparking huge local controversy. But ministers – and opposition politicians – barely talk about any of this. The result is an agenda that seems to be mostly driven by bureaucrats, and the spectacle of basic human needs being answered in the cold argot of accountancy.

A lot of Whitehall panic is focused on the number of children and young people who now have education, health and care plans, or EHCPs: documents that, in theory at least, set out what a child or young person needs – extra support, particular therapies and a named educational setting – as a set of inescapable legal entitlements. Since 2019, their number has increased by 72%. This is partly because of a change that arrived in 2014: the mandatory support such plans contain being extended up to the age of 25, and newly offered to preschoolers – which was backed by Tory politicians, but not supported with the commensurate funding.

But talk to teachers and support staff, and another story quickly becomes clear: because schools can often no longer provide the basic support that would once have been given to kids as a matter of course, families have no option but to go down the EHCP route to try to secure help, which is usually unbelievably stressful. As a parent of a child with autism and learning disabilities, I well know the awful grind this involves. But if you manage to get a plan, as Send provision falls apart, it can feel like the one bit of hope and certainty you can hang on to.

Now, the whole byzantine system is being tightened and trimmed, as the DfE tries to tackle the costs of its own failings. Its so-called Safety Valve programme currently involves about 40 English councils, and there is mounting evidence of what it aims to do: in return for immediate bailouts, there must be cuts, some of which seem to run counter to basic matters of law. Documents from Cambridgeshire county council acquired via freedom of information requests by the charity Ipsea (or Independent Provider of Special Education Advice) admit to a push to “increase the number of refusal to assess and refusal to issue decisions” for EHCPs. In Slough, there is “a new operational policy for ceasing EHC plans” for young adults. Norfolk county council brazenly aims to “turn the tap off” for EHCPs.

School leaders warn of ‘full-blown’ special needs crisis in England

A constant theme is a drive to reduce the number of kids in special schools, and funnel them back into cheaper mainstream provision. But without support staff, therapists, proper facilities and a curriculum that gives them space to achieve their potential, how will they cope? Bristol city council’s Safety Valve plan talks about enabling “increased numbers of children and young people with EHCPs to be successfully supported in mainstream settings.” But listen to one of the city’s parent campaigners: “The agreement does nothing to address the fundamental problems of a broken mainstream system, which is stripped to the bone. There’s no teaching assistants, there’s no specialist teachers.”

All this is yet another reminder of years of incompetence and educational dogma, but it also exposes a hole in Starmer’s tentative promises of a better future. The DfE’s economy drive seems deeply embedded, and there is an obvious danger of an overstretched and inexperienced Labour ministerial team taking the reins and leaving it in place – or, worse still, reviving dormant plans to create a new Send system built around the tightening of budgets.

Will they really want to carry on piling cuts and cruelties on to disabled and vulnerable children? Or might they see the need for two things that currently seem off-limits – a thoroughgoing reinvention of how we do education, and that great modern unmentionable, more money? Seismic crises demand big answers. As things stand, those of us who have to deal with a system in the grip of disaster can hear only a very unsettling silence.


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