Many children with special educational needs and disabilities aren’t learning and aren’t happy in school. A new report shows we need better support for these children and the staff who support them, write Cathy Tissot and Anna Tsakalaki in a new post for The Conversation.

new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found that local authorities are struggling to deliver proper support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. The report finds that the current system – introduced in 2014 – is not financially sustainable.

The system was designed to enable education, health and social services to work together for the benefit of the child, and give families and young people with special needs a greater voice in their education. But in practice, this simply isn’t happening, as funding has not increased in line with demand.

According to the NAO report, the number of pupils with the highest level of need (those who qualify for an education, health and care (EHC) plan) has risen by almost 20% since the changes came into force – but funding has not kept pace.

The report states that since 2014, £349m in extra funding has been given to support this group of students. But because the number of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities grew, the funding per pupil fell by 3% (it was an average of £19,600, and is now £19,100).

This means that – despite the dedicated hard work of staff at local schools – many are struggling to provide the support that they want to give, and that parents expect.

The NAO’s findings reflect the day-to-day experiences we hear from the field, as academics in education. Reports of overworked and under-resourced staff are common.

Our Special Educational Needs Coordinator students (SENCOs) are responsible for supporting pupils with special needs in schools around the country. They are telling us that they lack access to local authority experts, such as educational psychologists or behaviour specialists.

And instead of having financial support to use the resources they think will best help individual pupils, they are limited to what has been used in the past, or is available freely.

Funding shortfall

To try and find the funding to support students, the report states that local authorities are drawing on their dedicated schools grant reserves – money which is ring-fenced to be used for education, from the block grant from previous years. But these resources are being outstripped by the growing numbers of pupils with special needs.

Local authorities are left with no option but to use the current general school budget (called “school block funding”) to support pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, which means less money to spend on the rest of the student body.

The report questions whether schools will no longer want to have students with special needs, if it means that they will have less money for their mainstream pupils. Indeed, a recent report on exclusions found an increase in “off rolling” – an informal agreement whereby parents concede to remove children with special needs from the school roll, when it’s in the best interests of the school and not the pupil.

Not learning, not happy

The lack of support available is affecting which schools pupils with special educational needs and disabilities attend. Ofsted rates local authority special schools quite highly (92% rated “good” or “outstanding” overall). This compares to 85% of mainstream schools and only 78% of independent special schools. Yet the number of pupils with special needs going to independent special schools is increasing – likely due to the lack of effective support and provision in mainstream schools.

Stark figures on school exclusion also indicate that pupils’ needs are not being met, which is preventing them from engaging with the education provided. Although pupils with special educational needs and disabilities make up only 15% of a school, they make up almost half of all exclusions: 45% of permanent exclusions and 43% of exclusions over a fixed period. Clearly, these pupils aren’t learning and aren’t happy in school.

The 2014 changes to the government’s guidance on how schools, health and social services support students with special needs advocated for more mainstream provision, and the right of the family to choose a school for their child with special needs. These children can have quite extensive disabilities, and five to ten years ago many families would not have even considered mainstream education as an option.

We firmly believe all children have a right to be educated with their peers – but schools must have the right support and funding to do this. Parents quite rightfully advocate for their own children. If schools are given adequate funding, they will not be put in the unenviable position of having to choose between supporting pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, or spending on resources for the rest of the school.

The NAO report reflects the hard reality for children with special educational needs and disabilities in mainstream schools, which are themselves confronted every day with difficult choices about how to allocate limited resources. Clearly, the aspirations of the 2014 reforms have not been realised. Now, the government’s guidance needs to be better aligned with teaching and support practices that have been shown to work. Otherwise, schools will continue to fail this vulnerable group of pupils – despite their best efforts.

Professor Cathy Tissot is Head of the University of Reading Institute of Education. Her research interests include special education theory and practice, autism spectrum disorders and inclusive education.

 Dr Anna Tsakalaki is a Lecturer at the University’s Institute of Education and Director of the PG Cert SENCo Programme. Her research areas of interest include reading and writing development and difficulties, developmental disorders such as dyslexia and dysgraphia, and inclusion, diversity and equality in education.