National Audit Office report on SEN support in mainstream

Schools incentivised “to be less inclusive, by making them reluctant to admit or keep pupils with SEND who can be costly to support.” ALLFIE researcher Armineh Soorenian looks at the recent National Audit Office report.

In September 2019 the National Audit Office (NAO) produced a report examining the level and effectiveness of support for pupils labelled as having ‘special educational needs and disabilities’ in mainstream schools.  The report was written with the realisation that appropriate support can have a dramatic effect on the well-being, educational attainment and long-term life prospects of Disabled young learners.

The report indicates that the funding arrangements for 2018-19 incentivised mainstream schools ‘to be less inclusive, by making them reluctant to admit or keep pupils with SEND who can be costly to support.’ (NAO, 2019: 7).  The report also acknowledges that such measures could be considered simply reactive.  The document estimates that in 2017-18 ‘the cost per pupil in an independent special school was £50,000, compared with £20,500 per pupil in a state special school, and up to £18,000 per pupil with an EHC plan in a mainstream school.’ (NAO, 2019: 8), demonstrating that pupils attending mainstream school in fact require less funding than those attending special school.

In the report the NAO argues that the Department for Education (DfE) did not fully assess the likely financial consequences of the 2014 reforms, the most significant of which was the Children and Families Act (CFA, 2014).  Despite new legislation, more pupils are attending special schools than ever before, and the NAO believes that the DfE and local authority response to overspending on high-needs budgets is not making the system sustainable.  In addition, the number of cases taken to tribunal increased from 3,147 in 2014-15 to 5,679 in 2017-18, an increase of 80.5%.

Moreover, the NAO has revealed another worrying trend, pupils labelled with ‘SEND’, particularly those without Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans, are more likely to be permanently excluded from school than pupils without the label.  In 2017-18, the former group accounted for 44.9% of permanent exclusions and 43.4% of fixed-period exclusions, increasing the risk of disruption to their education.  The NAO also reports survey evidence from 2019 which indicates that pupils with SEND are more likely to experience ‘off-rolling’ than other pupils.  In this context off-rolling refers to the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil.

The key finding of the NAO report is that most Disabled pupils are not being supported effectively, and that pupils labelled with SEND who do not have EHC plans are particularly disadvantaged.  The current system for supporting pupils labelled with SEND is not financially sustainable.  Pressures such as incentivising mainstream schools to be less inclusive, increased demand for special school places, growing use of independent schools, and reductions in per-pupil funding are, in fact, making the system less, rather than more, sustainable.  There was a 2.6 per cent real-term reduction in funding for each pupil with high needs in the four years between 2013-14 and 2017-18, and many local authorities are now failing to live within their high-needs budgets and meet the demand for support.  NAO strongly argues that the DfE needs to act urgently to secure the quality improvements and sustainability; this is specifically important to ensure equality and inclusion for Disabled pupils.

The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) recently received funding from ‘Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning’ (DRILL) to conduct a project into the effectiveness of Accessibility Plans within English secondary schools.  The project is near to completion.  ALLFIE’s project has drawn similar conclusions to the NAO report and the findings will be shared through various platforms when the project report is launched in January 2020.

Dr Armineh Soorenian

Researcher, ALLFIE