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Some children with special educational needs and disabilities #SEND are receiving high-quality support but many are missing out

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

NAO report on Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England

While some children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are receiving high-quality support, many others are not getting the help they should, according to the National Audit Office (NAO). Local authorities are coming under growing financial pressure as the demand for supporting school pupils with the greatest needs rises.

In its report published today (11 Sept), “Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England” the NAO estimates that the Department for Education (DfE) gave local authorities £9.4 billion to spend on support for pupils with SEND in 2018-19 – 24.0% of their total core grant for schools.

While the DfE has increased school funding, the number of pupils identified as having the greatest needs – those in special schools and with education, health and care plans (EHC plans)* in mainstream schools – rose by 10.0% between 2013-14 and 2017-18. Over the same period, funding per pupil dropped by 2.6% in real terms for those with high needs, and also decreased for those without EHC plans.

Local authorities are increasingly overspending their budgets for children with high needs. In 2017-18, 81.3% of councils overspent compared with 47.3% in 2013-14. This is primarily driven by a 20% increase in the number of pupils attending special schools instead of mainstream education.

Local authorities have also sharply increased the amount they spend on independent special schools – by 32.4% in real terms between 2013-14 and 2017-18. In some cases, this is due to a lack of appropriate places at state special schools. More than four in five local authorities are overspending their high needs budget.

In response to overspending against these budgets, local authorities are transferring money from their budgets for mainstream schools to support pupils with high needs. They are also using up their ringfenced school reserves, which have dropped by 86.5% in the last four years. This is not a sustainable approach.

Stakeholders in the sector have raised concerns that the demand for special school places is growing because the system incentivises mainstream primary and secondary schools to be less inclusive. Mainstream schools are expected to cover the first £6,000 of support for a child with SEND from existing budgets and cost pressures can make them reluctant to admit or keep pupils with SEND. Another barrier is that schools with high numbers of children with SEND may also appear to perform less well against performance metrics.

Pupils with SEND, particularly those without EHC plans, are more likely to be permanently excluded from school than those without SEND. Pupils with SEND accounted for 44.9% of permanent exclusions in 2017/18. Evidence also suggests that pupils with SEND are more likely to experience off-rolling – where schools encourage parents to remove a child primarily for the school’s benefit – than other pupils.

While Ofsted has consistently rated over 90% of state special schools as good or outstanding, most pupils with SEND attend mainstream schools. Short Ofsted inspections of ‘good’ mainstream schools are not designed to routinely comment on SEND provision, so provide limited assurance of its quality.

The NAO has also raised questions about the consistency of support across the country as there are substantial unexplained variations between different local areas. Joint Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspections indicate that many local areas are not supporting children as effectively as they should be.

The NAO recommends that the DfE should assess how much it would cost to provide the system for supporting pupils with SEND created by the 2014 reforms and use this to determine whether it is affordable.

The Department needs better measures of the effectiveness of SEND support in preparing pupils for their adult lives and should make changes to funding and accountability arrangements to encourage and support mainstream schools to be more inclusive.

It should also investigate the reasons for local variations to increase confidence in the fairness of the system, identify good practice and promote improvement.

Since the report was completed, on Friday 6 September, the DfE announced a review of support for pupils with SEND.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said today:  

“Access to the right support is crucial to the happiness and life chances of the 1.3 million pupils with SEND in England. While lots of schools, both special and mainstream, are providing high-quality education for pupils with SEND, it is clear that many children’s needs are not being met.

“I therefore welcome the Department for Education’s announcement last week of a review into support for children with SEND, following our engagement with them on this issue over recent months. We hope the review will secure the improvements in quality and sustainability that are needed.”

Meg Hillier 100x100Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said:

“It is vital that children with special educational needs and disabilities have the support they need at school for them to achieve their ambitions and lead fulfilling lives.

“Yet there are significant concerns that many pupils are not being supported effectively and the NAO’s report finds that based on current trends, the system is not financially sustainable. 

“The Government must urgently review whether the current system is affordable and ensure that every child receives the support they deserve.”

Layla Moran100x100Liberal Democrat Shadow Education Secretary of State Layla Moran said:

“Children with special educational needs or a disability have borne the brunt of the schools funding emergency. They are trapped in the middle of a perfect storm. Whilst struggling schools cut teaching assistants and support staff, cash-strapped councils must stretch their budgets to support more children with the most complex needs than at any point since 2014.

“The Conservatives don’t understand the scale nor the extent of the SEND funding shortfall. We cannot let these children be failed any longer.

“Liberal Democrats would invest thousands of pounds more for every child on an Education, Health and Care Plan so that every child can get a great start in life.”

KevinCourtney100x100Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“This report makes clear the challenges facing schools and local authorities in their efforts to give the best possible support to SEND pupils.

“It is plain to anyone working in education that the levels of education funding for SEND pupils are inadequate. 93% of local authorities have lost out on SEND funding since 2015 because of central government’s cuts to special needs provision. Even after last week’s announcement of £700m more, schools are still £1bn short of what is needed.

“On the Conservatives’ watch, the real-terms funding crisis in schools and colleges has damaged the support available to SEND pupils. It has resulted in the letting go of teaching assistants and specialist staff. Meanwhile, the number of children with EHC plans increases.

“Last week, the Government announced a review of support for SEND pupils, but this is no help to those working on the frontline of teaching today. Children have one chance in education, and through dithering the Government is failing them.”

Ian Noon, Chief Policy Advisor at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said:

“This report is yet more evidence of the shocking failure of the SEND system to meet the needs of disabled children.

“The 2014 reforms were hailed as a landmark moment in improving the lives of children with SEND, but five years later, councils are starved of funding, families are marching in the streets and parents are having to take legal action to get the support their child needs. Deaf children have been hit particularly hard, with their specialist teachers cut by 10% in that time.

“Make no mistake, previous Governments have neglected children with SEND. The new Government has now announced another review, as well as £700 million extra for special needs education. It’s vital that this is now translated into urgent action so that money gets to the frontline, and to those who desperately need it, as quickly as possible.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“This report highlights the fact that the system for supporting children with special educational needs is creaking at the seams because the level of government funding is inadequate. It rightly concludes that the current situation is unsustainable.

“The government has recognised the urgency of this crisis with a commitment to spend an additional £700m in 2020/21. This is a welcome step in the right direction. However, evidence to the House of Commons Education Committee has put the shortfall at between £1.2bn and £1.6bn, and it is clear that further investment will be needed.

“The National Audit Office report raises concerns that the demand for special school places is growing because the system incentivises mainstream primary and secondary schools to be less inclusive. Our experience is that the vast majority of mainstream schools strive to be inclusive and that they do an excellent job in providing support for children with special educational needs despite huge pressures on their funding.”

Steve Reed MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Children, said:

“It shames the Government that school pupils with special educational needs accounted for almost half of all permanent exclusions in 2017/18. This causes lasting damage to young people who need better support not punishment.

“No country that loves its children would treat them like this. Instead of cutting taxes for the rich, the Government should invest in properly supporting children with disabilities.”

Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, Cllr Judith Blake, said:

“This report underlines the significant financial pressures councils face to support children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

“It also reflects our concerns that mainstream schools are increasingly unable to meet the needs of children with SEND, due to a combination of funding constraints, accountability pressures and curriculum changes meaning schools are becoming less inclusive.

“The extra £700 million for SEND announced in the Spending Round will help councils to meet the rising demand for support next year and we are pleased the Government has also launched a review of the system.

“Reform is needed and councils want to work with the Government and families and children with SEND on the forthcoming cross-government review to get a clear picture of why demand and cost pressures are continuing to rise and what can be done to make the system work more effectively for everyone.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

“Helping all children and young people reach their potential is one of the core aims of this Government, including those with special educational needs. That is why the Prime Minister has committed to providing an extra £700 million next year to make sure these children get an education that helps them develop and thrive as adults.

“We have improved special educational needs support to put families at the heart of the system and give them better choice in their children’s education, whether in mainstream or special school. Last week we launched a review of these reforms, to make sure every child, everywhere, gets an education that prepares them for success.”

Further information from DfE:

  • The Children and Families Act 2014 (that sets out the basis of the SEND system) secures the general presumption in law of mainstream education in relation to decisions about where children and young people with SEN should be educated. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits schools from discriminating against disabled children and young people in respect of admissions for a reason related to their disability.
  • The Department for Education has created new special schools in response to the increasing number of pupils with complex special educational needs and are committed to delivering even more provision to ensure every child is able to access the education that they need.

Key facts


pupils in England identified as having special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) at January 2019


our estimate of the Department for Education’s funding to support pupils with SEND in 2018-19


proportion of local authorities that overspent their high-needs budget in 2017-18


1.0% to 5.9%

variation between local authorities in the proportion of pupils aged 5 to 15 with education, health and care plans


real-terms reduction in funding for each pupil with high needs between 2013-14 and 2017-18


real-terms increase in local authorities’ spending on independent special schools between 2013-14 and 2017-18


proportion of permanent exclusions involving children with SEND in 2017/18


proportion of state special schools that Ofsted had graded as good or outstanding at August 2018


proportion of inspected local authority areas that Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission had assessed as underperforming at July 2019


  1. The Department should prepare for the next full Spending Review by making an evidence-based assessment of how much it would cost to provide the system for supporting pupils with SEND created by the 2014 reforms. It should use this assessment to determine whether the system is affordable, and to inform its funding and spending plans.
  2. The Department should set quantified goals, for 2020-21 onwards, including outcome measures such as metrics relating to preparing young people for adulthood, to make clear what level of performance would constitute success for the support provided for pupils with SEND. It should put in place mechanisms to collect the data needed to assess progress against these measures, including tracking long-term outcomes.
  3. The Department should review the incentives in the funding arrangements and the accountability system, and make changes that encourage and support mainstream schools to be more inclusive in terms of admitting, retaining and meeting the needs of pupils with SEND, whether they have EHC plans or require other support.
  4. The Department should identify and share good practice on how mainstream schools can effectively meet the needs of those pupils with SEND who do not have EHC plans.
  5. The Department should set out publicly the circumstances under which it considers public money should be used to pay for independent provision for pupils with SEND. The aim should be for the amount that local authorities pay for independent provision to be comparable with the amount paid for state provision for children with similar needs, unless there is a good reason for paying more.
  6. The Department should work with Ofsted to identify what more can be done to make inspections of mainstream schools, in particular short inspections, provide more assurance specifically about SEND provision that is easily accessible and clear to parents.
  7. The Department should more robustly investigate the reasons for local variations, drawing on the data available and supported by its specialist advisers and NHS England, and establish the extent to which the variations can reasonably be explained. It should challenge local areas that are outliers in respect of measures such as the proportion of pupils with EHC plans and use of high-cost provision, in order to reduce unnecessary variation, increase confidence in the fairness of the system, identify good practice and promote improvement.

*EHC plans set out a child’s legally enforceable entitlements to specific packages of support. They are for children whom local authorities have assessed as needing the most support. At January 2019, 20.6% of pupils with SEND had an EHC plan. 47.9% of those with an EHC plan attended mainstream schools and almost all others attended a special school.

In the National Audit Office report, financial years are written as, for example, ‘2017-18’ and run from 1 April to 31 March; school academic years are written as ‘2017/18’ and run from 1 September to 31 August.

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