The funding crisis, education for young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)

by Councillor Liz Brighouse, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Children, Education and Youth Services

Like all local authorities in England with responsibility for providing education to young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), Oxfordshire County Council struggles to keep up with demand. This is because the government’s high needs grants don’t match our children’s needs.  

These grants are overspent nationally. The government had promised to review this deficit, caused by the increased costs arising from our better understanding of how to meet these children’s extra needs, but is now asking local authorities to carry the can and reduce it.

This is an enormous task. The main reason our SEND budget is overspent is because of greater demand and government restrictions on spending. Demand comes in various forms for children with SEND from classroom learning, where teachers are trained to understand and meet the needs of individual pupils, to more complex cases, such as when a child requires respiratory intervention. The spending restrictions have meant that local authorities haven’t been able to provide the right school places and support needed for children with SEND.

Moreover, the range of children and young people receiving SEND support was extended in 2014, but no extra money was made available to extend our own special provisions and a whole range of commercial providers have also seen the chance to profit and become involved in the system.

These commercial providers offer expensive specialist places in ‘for profit’ schools. Many of these schools make upwards of 38 per cent profit from the SEND budget. The budget is therefore under a lot of stress because of issues that are difficult for a local authority to change.

Oxfordshire County Council has just agreed a SEND strategy to wrestle with these national problems. We consulted widely on the strategy – including with parents, children and young people – and we are now working on an implementation plan with teachers, health partners, voluntary organisations, parents and carers.

Our approach is to keep as many children as possible in our mainstream schools with support and training provided for teachers and other staff – to provide resource bases within some of them – while using our special schools with their expert specialist knowledge to support them. However, this provision is hard to deliver currently because of the lack of appropriate government funding.

Where necessary, we shall build new special state schools to stop the movement into the expensive commercial ‘for profit’ sector. We will also work more closely with health to ensure that we have the necessary data to meet the needs of all these children and ensure they have timely interventions.

Supporting children early is key to ensuring children and families don’t experience the unnecessarily long-term trauma induced through the absence of appropriate early help.

The number of children and young people with special educational needs, particularly those with mental health and wellbeing needs, has risen sharply and we are seeing many more distressed children in our schools.

These children need additional support and help particularly to enable them to thrive in a mainstream school environment. Children in England, however, are 1,500 times more likely to be permanently excluded from schools than children growing up in Scotland. (In 2018: 7,853 children were permanently excluded from schools in England and just five in Scotland).

We would like Oxfordshire County Council, with our highly professional teachers and support staff, to lead the way nationally in reversing this ‘exclusionary’ trend and for Oxfordshire to be seen as a beacon of what’s possible by unlocking the minds and hearts of all our pupils.

Of course, there are many reasons for the difference between the English and Scottish figures. But we believe we have the quality of staff in Oxfordshire schools to lead the way in changing these deplorable national statistics. These are our most vulnerable children – a large number of them have education, health and care plans or are on the SEND register.

A civilised society doesn’t turn its back on such children. We must build an inclusive education system where all are valued and safeguarded, irrespective of their differing needs and abilities. This is our vision, which we are determined to deliver. 



Councillor Brighouse's feature was published in Local Government Chronicle.


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