1.Many children with SEND are being failed by the support system. Inspections of support for children and young people with SEND, jointly carried out by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (the CQC), have found that half of local authority areas (47 of the 94 areas inspected by the end of July 2019) have significant weaknesses. Mainstream primary and secondary schools are struggling to meet the needs of pupils with SEND and to cope with those who have challenging behaviour. In September 2019, the Department announced a review of support for children with SEND, with the aim of improving the services for families who need support, equipping staff in schools and colleges to respond effectively to their needs, and ending the ‘postcode lottery’ that children and families often face. The Department accepts that it has defined the outcomes it is expecting the system of support for children with SEND to achieve only in general terms, and that defining these more precisely is an important area of focus for its review.
Recommendation: The Department should, as a matter of urgency, complete and publish its SEND review. The review should set out the actions that the Department and others will take to secure the necessary improvements in support for children with SEND, and the timescale within which families will see practical changes. We expect the Department to explain the evidence it has used to support its conclusions, and to set out what quantified goals it will use to measure success in the short, medium and long term.
2.There are significant unexplained disparities between different groups of children in the support they receive. The Department acknowledges that, while some children are well supported, others are not. It is unable, however, to explain the wide variations between different demographic groups in the proportion of children identified as having SEND. Nearly twice as many boys than girls aged 5–17 have SEND—20.2% compared with 10.7%. The proportion of pupils with SEND also varies by ethnicity, from 8.0% of Chinese pupils to 15.5% of black pupils. The Department suspects there is under-identification of some special needs, for example of autism in girls. It told us that each local area’s school improvement team has received tailored data on local pupils with SEND, including information about ethnicity, which it expects local areas to use to understand and address disparities.
Recommendation: The Department should use the data it already collects to develop a better, evidence-based understanding of why there is so much variation between different groups of children in identifying SEND. In particular, it should be able to explain why more boys than girls are identified with SEND, and whether needs are consistently identified in boys and girls, and in certain ethnic groups. The Department should publish the results of its analysis and details of the action it plans to take in response.
3.Too many pupils with SEND are excluded from school, meaning their education is disrupted. Pupils with SEND are far more likely to be excluded from school than others—they accounted for 44.9% of permanent exclusions and 43.4% of fixed-period exclusions in 2017/18. In May 2019, the Timpson review of school exclusions concluded that vulnerable groups of children are more likely to be excluded and that more should be done to ensure that exclusion is used consistently and fairly. The Government accepted the review’s 30 recommendations in principle. Schools have the right to exclude pupils as a last resort. Nonetheless, the Department acknowledges that the level of exclusions of pupils with SEND is not acceptable. Good EHC plans, and early identification of special needs, can both result in fewer exclusions if they lead to children getting the right support at school. The Department reports that it is focusing on behaviour management and support in schools to reduce the number of exclusions.
Recommendation: The Department should set out the steps it proposes to take to reduce the number of children with SEND who are permanently or temporarily excluded from school. In doing so, it should explain what action it will take in response to the recommendations in the Timpson review of school exclusions, and the reasoning for its decisions.
4.The Department relies too heavily on periodic inspection for assurance that children, particularly in mainstream schools, are being properly supported. The Department relies on Ofsted inspections of individual schools to provide assurance about how well those schools are supporting children with SEND. However, the frequency with which Ofsted inspects schools depends heavily on its previous inspection rating, and some schools that were rated as outstanding at their last inspection have not been inspected for 10 years or more. In addition, short inspections of mainstream schools may not focus on the school’s provision for pupils with SEND. Ofsted and the CQC also started joint inspections of local areas’ support for children and young people with SEND in 2016. These local area inspections look at education, health and social care services for each local authority area as a whole. The Department considers that the difficult financial position of many local authorities and schools helps to explain why half of the local areas inspected are not meeting the expected standards. It is relying on Ofsted and the CQC revisiting local areas that have significant weaknesses, as a means of checking whether the quality of support has improved. Of the 18 local areas revisited, seven were found to be performing at the expected standard, meaning 11 had not improved enough.
Recommendation: The Department should supplement inspection evidence by drawing on other information to get a rounded, timely assessment of the quality of support for children with SEND. This information should include, for example, intelligence from regional schools commissioners, parent carer forums, schools forums, and head teachers. To give parents confidence that the Department is drawing on all relevant information in carrying out its system oversight role, the Department should explain on its website what information it collects and how it uses it.
5.Mainstream schools have little financial incentive to be inclusive of pupils with SEND. The way that funding is allocated to mainstream schools can act as a disincentive to enrolling pupils with SEND. Schools must cover the first £6,000 of extra support costs for each pupil with SEND from their core budgets. The Department has consulted on the appropriateness of the £6,000 threshold, but said that the responses were inconclusive. It highlights that it needs to avoid creating perverse incentives for schools to over-identify SEND, since this is neither appropriate for children’s needs or conducive to value for money. Local authorities can allocate additional funding to support genuinely inclusive mainstream schools with high numbers of pupils with SEND. However, in 2018–19, only 85 of 150 local authorities budgeted for additional support of this kind.
Recommendation: The Department should work with schools and other stakeholders, and draw on good practice, to identify how funding mechanisms can be used more effectively to strike the right balance between incentivising schools to be inclusive without encouraging over-identification of SEND.
6.There are not enough state special school places in some parts of the country, meaning local authorities must cover the high cost of places in independent special schools and spend ever larger amounts on SEND transport. Local authorities are increasingly using independent special schools that are significantly more costly than other provision, partly because of the lack of available places in state special schools. In addition, local authorities’ spending on transport to take children with SEND to and from school has risen significantly, and was £102 million (18.4%) over budget in 2017–18. The Department forecasts that, by 2021, there will be 2,500 too few places in state special schools to meet demand. It accepts that more capacity to support children with high needs will have to be created, either by improving facilities in existing schools or by setting up new special free schools. The Department is looking to locate new special schools in the areas where they are most needed.
Recommendation: The Department should carry out a systematic analysis of current and future demand for school places and facilities suitable for pupils with complex needs, and develop a costed plan for meeting those needs. In doing so, it should take account of potential savings in local authorities’ transport costs in areas where children currently have to travel a long distance to attend special schools.
Published: 6 May 2020