SEND budgets

The Growing SEND Budget Crisis

PAG Staff2024, alternative provision, Article, Case Studies, DfE, Early Years, free schools, Fund, Local Authorities, Schools, SEND

The Growing SEND Budget Crisis

Councils across England are facing alarming shortfalls in their SEND budget, critical for supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The BBC recently uncovered that councils predict a deficit nearing £1 billion in funds allocated for these students. This shortfall is exacerbated by increasing demands and mounting financial pressures on local authorities.

Escalating Deficits and Rising Demands 

Since 2019, the cumulative deficit for SEND in England has ballooned to £3.2 billion, as reported by the County Council Network. Despite efforts to manage these financial challenges, the gap between available funding and actual spending continues to widen. In a comprehensive survey conducted by the BBC, with 113 out of 153 councils responding, a forecasted collective shortfall of £926 million for the current financial year was estimated.

Personal Struggles and Legal Battles

For parents, navigating the complexities of the SEND system is a daunting task. One parent, whose 11-year-old daughter is autistic, faces significant challenges in attending her designated special school and described the process of securing an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) as overwhelming and arduous, often requiring legal intervention to ensure that Isla's needs are adequately met.

Official statistics highlight the scale of the issue, with nearly 600,000 children and young people now holding EHCPs in England. Last year alone saw a 26% increase in the issuance of new plans, underscoring the surging demand that councils are struggling to accommodate with their current funding.

Financial Pressures and Safety Valve Agreements

The BBC's investigation revealed a substantial deficit of £586 million reported by 100 councils for the last financial year, a figure which is projected to continue to grow. These financial pressures have led 38 local authorities to enter "safety valve" agreements with the government, which provide additional funding in exchange for commitments to reduce SEND deficits, sparking concerns among parent groups about potential limitations on support.

Catriona Moore from the Independent Provider of Special Education Advice (IPSEA) has raised alarms over these agreements, noting that some councils appear to be focusing more on reducing the number of EHCPs issued rather than addressing the needs of children, prioritising financial considerations over educational support.

Cheshire East stands out as a council with a significant shortfall, spending £88 million against a SEND budget of £56 million. Councillor Sam Corcoran, Labour leader of the council, criticises the current system as broken, likening the deficit to a "credit card" debt that will need to be repaid by 2026. The council's borrowing will incur interest costs between £3 million and £6 million, adding to the financial strain.

Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals that since 2015, around half of the increased funding for school spending in England, amounting to £3.5 billion, has been absorbed by meeting SEND needs.

The Call for Government Intervention & Future Challenges

The National Association of Headteachers has urged any future government to write off the accumulated SEND deficits in council budgets. One Headteacher, from a Church of England Primary in Bristol, is concerned about the sustainability of support under the current "safety valve" agreement, highlighting a significant discrepancy between the funding received and the actual cost of providing one-to-one support for children with additional needs.

Bristol's plan, similar to many others, involves receiving extra funding in return for measures to reduce the SEND deficit, emphasising early intervention and support in mainstream schools. While there is some evidence that early intervention can be effective, it also requires substantial funding.

Addressing the legal rights of children, the fears of parents, and the financial constraints of councils will be a major challenge for the next education secretary. The Conservatives have pledged to establish 15 more special schools, Labour promises increased early intervention and support in mainstream schools, the Liberal Democrats advocate for a national body to manage SEND funding, and the Greens propose a £5 billion investment in SEND within mainstream schools. Reform UK has not addressed SEND in their platform.

The growing financial crisis in SEND education underscores the urgent need for comprehensive and sustainable solutions to ensure that every child receives the support they need and deserve.

[Adapted from an article by the BBC.]