April 28, 2022, Schools Week: Revealed: The spiralling cost of a broken SEND system https://schoolsweek.co.uk/revealed-the-spiralling-cost-of-a-broken-send-system/
Three-quarters of councils now have high needs financial blackholes, with many rejecting large numbers of requests for special needs support A financial black hole at the heart of the SEND system has ballooned to £1.3 billion [$1.6B] this year, an increase of more than £450 million [$562M] in just 12 months as the places crisis bites. The spiralling local authority deficits reveal the costly toll of a broken system. The dual pressures of rising demand and increasing complexity of need have left councils without enough state-funded provision to cope and hugely reliant on costly independent schools. For instance, spending on private school places by cash-strapped councils handed government bailouts to keep afloat has risen by two thirds. The recent SEND review attempts to solve the cost problem at the start – by keeping more children in mainstream schooling to dampen rising demand. But reforms could be years away. In the meantime, our investigation has found 21 councils already now reject one in every three requests for education health and care plan (EHCP) assessments.... 75% OF COUNCILS AMASS DEFICITS Three in every four councils, who are legally obliged to organise and fund EHCP arrangements, have amassed deficits in their high-needs budgets, analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reveals. Kent, Surrey, Devon, Hampshire and Norfolk are particularly badly affected. Deficits across these five councils were together expected to grow by almost £190 million [$237M] in the past 12 months. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council’s deficit more than doubled to £18.6 million [$23M] in 2021-22. Independent school placements are the most significant pressure on its budget. The council had hoped to reduce these but admitted “there is no indication yet this can be achieved”. Hillingdon Council in west London recently required emergency government intervention to reduce its £34 million [$42M] special needs debt. ... A lack of capacity in-borough means there is “an expectation” that independent schools “will become the only route the council will be able to take until more provision is created locally”. Kent’s deficit has reached £103 million [$129M] – in cash terms, the largest in the country. In a candid interview, the council’s special educational needs and disabilities director, Mark Walker, said parents had lost faith in the ability of Kent’s mainstream schools to meet their children’s needs. As a result, he explained, the council receives a higher proportion of EHCP applications from parents than schools. ... Walker believes the answer to reducing the deficit is to increase inclusion at mainstream schools – a key promise in the government’s SEND green paper. “We need to make sure parents in Kent don’t think they have to get an EHC plan in order to get the type of support their son or daughter needs,” he said. The deficit, he said, would take years to reverse. SUPPORT ‘THRESHOLDS’ CONSIDERED Councils with deficits must submit plans to the Department for Education on how they intend to balance their books. Some include proposals to amend thresholds for which children are eligible for the education, health and care needs assessment that marks the first step towards securing an EHC plan – thresholds that have no legal standing. ... But a spokesperson for the Local Government Association said: “Meeting the year-on-year increase in demand for SEND support is one of the biggest challenges that councils are dealing with. “Councils lack the levers to bring this spending under control, and this is a key issue that needs to be addressed.” BAILED-OUT COUNCILS SEE SPEND SOAR But the reforms are backed by just £70 million [$87M] of new money – which will be used to implement the changes across three years. Instead, the government’s new “safety valve” intervention programme awards bailouts on the strict condition that councils save money by reforming SEND support. Deals totalling £400 million [$500M] with 14 councils have been reached so far, with more in the pipeline. Merton Council will get nearly £29 million in government bailouts over the next five years. But new figures obtained by Schools Week show that its costs for educating pupils outside of mainstream special schools have soared by 96 per cent since 2017-18. The council spent £9.9 million five years ago on 223 places in independent or non-mainstream special schools. This year it spent £19.5 million on 398 places. TBIJ figures show Merton had to place 40.7 per cent of its EHCP pupils in schools outside the borough last year – the second highest of any council. Just over 1,000 of its 1,500 pupils with EHCPs were placed out of borough. But the council also had 433 pupils placed in its schools by other boroughs (taking 23 per cent of its provision). In return for the bailout, Merton must “strengthen” SEND support in mainstream schools to “reduce escalation” of students’ needs and “manage demand” for EHCPs. Across six “safety valve” councils that responded to our freedom of information request, spend on non-mainstream places had soared from £82 million to £131 million in five years. The number of places rose from 1,989 to 2,862. Surrey, which will receive £100 million in bailouts, has seen these costs nearly double – from £47.6 million to £80 million. The councils were contacted for comment. A Schools Week investigation revealed that 51 councils spent £368 million on private SEND providers in 2019, up from £290 million three years earlier. If extrapolated across the country, it means around £1.1 billion was spent on placing SEND pupils in private schools that year.