The widening gap between special and mainstream

It is with interest that we read that Damien Hinds has decided to seek the views of schools on whether special needs funding should be reformed to make it “more effective”.  The DFE want to know whether the funding system “could better reflect the changing nature of need”, and whether cash can be “distributed more effectively”.

For those of us working in schools, it’s not really about needs changing, nor about effective distribution of funds.  Needs are not changing, they are growing.  Autism is a good example of this challenge.  We are better than ever before at diagnosing autism and understanding that pupils with autism need special provision.  Numbers of pupils with autism requiring extra support and/or an EHCP are therefore increasing quickly.  Put simply, the more we train teachers and SENDCos, the better they are at diagnosis, and the more pupils with SEND we have in our schools.  And it’s not just teachers: parents are also increasingly savvy about recognising their children’s needs and asking for the help their children deserve.

At the same time, funds for SEND in schools are decreasing.  Last month think tank IPPR North reported that funding for pupils with SEND has been slashed by 17 per cent in just three years.  We in London see the same trend.  When budgets are tight (and they are!), staffing is reduced.  When staffing is reduced, support for our most vulnerable learners is affected most of all.  SEND pupils bear the brunt of the budget crisis schools are facing.

What does this look like on the ground?  Here at the alliance, we are noting a surge of interest in programmes to support teachers managing the needs of SEND pupils, like our UCL Institute of Education autism programme, and our Leading a Mentally Healthy School programme.  Teachers want to know how best to support the much wider range of needs they are having to manage within the classroom.  Teachers wanting to learn how best to meet the needs of SEND pupils has to be a good thing, right?  Well, yes… but we know that these pupils need specialist help and more manpower than a single classteacher can provide, despite their best intentions. 

So what we see is an ever-widening gap between the offer of mainstream and special schools.  What should be a fine distinction, offering real choice to parents, is becoming a huge chasm, reducing parental choice and making special schools seem like the only choice for an increasing number of SEND pupils. 

Rob Webster notes that the projected increase in the secondary school population of 376,000 young people by 2023 will equate to at least 45,300 extra pupils with SEND, or around 15 pupils per secondary school nationally. At the same time, he notes an 11% reduction in the number of secondary schools with a SEND unit between January 2017 and January 2018.  This is a problem that is going to grow unless we can tackle it very soon.

So by all means, let’s look at SEND funding.  Let’s look at its impact on parental choice, teacher workload and stress, and most of all on the lives of young people with SEND who are caught in a perfect storm.

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