by Amy Hardie, Sharon Pratt Dawson and SEND Community Alliance
Despite Surrey still being under the Ofsted cosh for failing its SEND area inspection in 2016, it's now consulted with the county's headteachers on proposals to cut additional SEN funding for mainstream schools. The special educational needs (SEN) funding consultation: Proposals for Changes in 2021-22 published by Surrey County Council closed last week, with requests for responses restricted to schools only.
There is national concern over the estimated funding gap of £643m for local authorities (based on figures supplied by our member, Special Needs Jungle) to fulfil their duties to provide appropriate support to children in line with the Children and Family Act 2014. It is therefore not surprising that Surrey is reporting eye-watering deficits in their high needs spending block (HNB).
The HNB funds provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Changes announced by the Department for Education (DFE) in July 2020 that prevent authorities transferring funds between Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) funding blocks, is putting even more pressure on their budgets, as this reduces flexibility to how they are able to allocate funds.
Surrey says its proposals are in response to its large deficit and a need to reduce costs. However, it is also framed as a way of ensuring the need to ‘better target support for mainstream schools and to support Surrey schools to become even more inclusive’.
But Julie Iles, Surrey County Council (SCC) cabinet member for all-age learning, has consistently, and outrageously, parent-blamed for the high cost of SEND in the area:
“There’s a number of contributing factors for why we have a large instance of EHCPs – including but not limited to inconsistent practice in the past and a high level of parent expectation in thinking a diagnosis would provide a panacea, schools believing an EHCP was needed to be able to support inclusivity and insufficient use of early interventions at early years stage."Councillor Julie Isles, quoted in Surrey Live
Only parents of disabled children would be criticised for having "high expectations" for their children. If Cllr Isles had a child who was inexplicably failing at school, would she not also want to get to the bottom of it? Or would she be content to see them distressed, without friends and potentially excluded? No parent thinks a diagnosis is a "panacea". It is a starting point from where to frame understanding and find the right support. It's, frankly, shocking that this should be the opinion of someone in charge of learning.
How can cuts support inclusion?
It is highly unlikely that restricting funding will support Surrey schools to be more inclusive; the very opposite is far more likely. It will pose problems for mainstream schools that have large numbers of SEND children or those with an EHCP as it will effectively cut their budgets. This makes it less likely for them to want to take, or keep, children on SEN Support or with unfunded plans.
The "notional budget" mainstream schools are given for SEND doesn't stretch far and hasn't been increased since before the SEND reforms. Some SENDCOs say they never see this money themselves at all. But LAs insist schools should fund all interventions for pupils on SEN Support and, often, the first £6,000 of every EHCP held by a child attending a mainstream school. The current system of additional SEN funding means mainstream schools with a greater number of SEND pupils can apply for extra funding to pay for specialist support and interventions they might otherwise not have wanted or been able to afford, without an EHCP.
So, logically, for schools that educate lots of children with SEND this cut may mean they can't afford to be as inclusive as they might like. Against a backdrop of COVID-19, where SEND children have indisputably fared worst, with some not even being allowed back to school, this plan couldn't come at a worse time.
SEND Community Alliance's member, SEND National Crisis has described the proposals as, "A false economy, as it is likely to increase EHCP applications. It also goes against Surrey’s own position on promoting early intervention and SEN support.".
For a child on SEN support in one of these schools, removal of this funding stream will place the cost of the additional support directly onto the school. This is likely to lead to a reduction in the support these children receive. The possibility then is that the child will require an EHCP with its own funding and may end up in more expensive, specialist provision that can meet their needs, which Surrey County Council will have to fund.
If support is refused, this will then have a knock-on effect in an increase of tribunal appeals. As Julie Isles says, Surrey parents are often more able to take action to defend their children's rights - although her quote below wasn't intended to be quite so complimentary:
"About one third of diagnoses in Surrey have Autistic Spectrum Disorder as the main presentation of SEN and we have a large number of intelligent parents, which may be linked – we’re doing some work with South Bank University to understand that some more"Cllr Julie Iles
It's possible her quote was reported out of context, but what is the point of investigating this? As autism has a genetic component, of course it's more likely that autistic children have parents who are on the spectrum. What do they aim to do with this information? Ban so-called "high-functioning" autistic adults from living in Surrey in case they have autistic children who need help? How much are they spending on this?
Perhaps Cllr Iles would prefer an under-educated population of parents who don't know about, and don't have the ability to fight for, their children's rights to an equal education? She, along with many in government, seem to miss the fact that if children do not get the support they need at school, they are less likely to be able to function in society socially as adults, or contribute to it economically. The cost of supporting them through adulthood will be much greater to the public purse than giving them what they need as children - but of course, that won't balance next year's budget, will it?
Why does Surrey think this will improve the lives of children with SEND?
For a child with an EHCP in mainstream, in theory, removal of this funding should make no difference as the local authority are required to fund provision. However, as mentioned, because schools are expected to stump up the first £6,000 from its delegated notional budget for any EHC plan, this will leave a hole that will no longer be back-filled. It's possible this means the EHCP will instead go unfunded, and the statutory provision within it will not be provided. This again increases the risk of placement failure and potentially bigger costs as a result, to both the local authority for funding a more expensive place and to the child's learning and mental health.
A difficult situation
It's reported that Surrey County Council expects to have accrued an £80 million deficit next year, rising to £104 million the year after, it blames on the cost of SEND provision. It puts a growth in the need for SEND services in Surrey at 11%. It isn't clear why this is, although the closure of Children's Centres around the county in recent years cannot have helped with providing timely support to prevent later problems arising. Instead, LAs like to cast the need for SEND provision as "demand", implying that it is somehow a "want" by "pushy parents" rather than a statutory duty.
Apart from a need to reduce the high needs deficit, it is not clear in the consultation document on why they are proposing to remove this stream of funding. They say it is to promote inclusivity, but that is clearly debatable. It is likely that more children who are currently managing with SEN support will be forced to apply for EHCP’s to have their needs met. This expense will prove too much for schools and so schools that had previously been more inclusive will become less so.
These concerns were raised during the Surrey Schools Forum minutes from July 2020 onwards. Concern was also raised around consulting more widely on the issue, which has clearly been ignored as this only asks for schools’ views and therefore excludes other sectors with good knowledge of the issues being raised, as well as parents and young people themselves.
According to the Surrey Schools Forum Minutes dated November 2020, the decision needs to be made by 21st January to meet a Department for Education (DFE) reporting deadline. Because of this, the cabinet has been asked to delegate a decision on the proposal. It does not bring comfort to see the decision is being rushed, without proper consultation, and then being delegated.
Sign up to our mailing list
If you aren't ready to join or would prefer just to stay in touch, you can sign up to our mailing list below. Or do both!