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(UK) Govt adds $558B for "high needs"; $5.8B more needed annually

Feb 18, 2024, Guardian: Special needs responsibilities were heaped on councils as funding shrank

The Guardian found huge variation in the delays children face, as demand has outstripped provision

There was a familiar feel to last month’s Commons debate on special needs funding: MPs berating the government over its lack of support for local authorities in England, for the long delays in assessments and severe shortages of special school places.

But many of the debate’s most damning complaints came from Conservative MPs, whose reports of frustration and anger from their constituents were indistinguishable from the opposition’s.

Jake Berry, a former Conservative party chair, was among those pleading with his own government to help local authorities handle the surge in children and young people seeking education, health and care plans (EHCPs).

Berry, whose son is autistic, asked the government “to please find a way to support councils to fast track EHCPs”. He added: “That would make a difference. EHCPs do work when people get them. I know that it works for me, my family and my son. The challenge is that people just cannot get them in a timely manner.”

Freedom of information requests to local authorities in England by the Guardian reveal there is huge variation in the delays that children face.

The most recent national figures show just under half of all EHCP requests in England are completed within the government’s 20-week target. The FoIs found that local authorities like Wolverhampton – with only 12 outstanding cases – were outweighed by those like Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council, where 319 cases out of 361 were waiting more than 20 weeks towards the end of last year.

But for many councils, issuing EHCPs is the tip of the iceberg.

The government’s 2014 reforms to the special educational needs and disabilities (Send) policy were straightforward: children and young people would apply to their local authority for an assessment. The resulting EHCP would detail the support they needed and, in many cases, the school where they could receive it.

But the reforms heaped responsibilities on local government, such as increasing the age range to 25, as they faced shrinking funding, while the number of children and young people with EHCPs has risen from 240,000 in 2015 to 517,000 last year. This has outstripped provision and forced many councils to blow their budgets on costly transport arrangements and private school places. Some local authorities have even tried to ration the number of EHCPs they issue.

Alex Dale, the chair of the f40 group of local authorities, said: “I don’t think anyone, seven or eight years ago, quite expected that demand would rise in the way that it has. And that’s why we’re in the situation now, where I think even the government acknowledged that the Send system is not working.”

Even the government’s critics accept it has increased funding as the crisis has become apparent. The Department for Education (DfE) says high-needs funding is rising by £440m [$558B] in 2024-25 to a total of £10.5bn [$13B]--an increase of more than 60% since 2019-20 – and in 2022 it launched a drive to open 60 new special schools.

But it isn’t enough. Last month Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council became the latest to reveal a £63m [$80M] deficit in its dedicated schools grant as a result of overspending its Send budget. That deficit is now bleeding into budget cuts for the local authority’s maintained schools.

According to f40, an additional £4.6bn [$5.8B] a year is needed just to prevent the crisis from getting worse. And an underlying problem remains that local authorities get little say over how extra resources are allocated within their area.

Louise Gittins, the chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “Improving levels of mainstream inclusion is also crucial, reducing the reliance on costly special schools and other settings. Powers to intervene in schools not supporting children with Send should be brought forward at the earliest opportunity but should sit with councils, not the DfE.”


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