Auditors have warned that local authorities are coming under growing financial pressure as the demand for supporting school pupils with the greatest needs rises.
A new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has revealed that councils are increasingly overspending their budgets for children with special educational needs (SEND).
In 2017-18, 81.3% of councils overspent compared with 47.3% in 2013-14.
The NAO says this is primarily driven by a 20% increase in the number of pupils attending special schools instead of mainstream education.
Local authorities have also increased the amount they spend on independent special schools by 32.4% in real terms between 2013-14 and 2017-18.
The Department for Education (DfE) gave councils £9.4bn to spend on support for pupils with SEND in 2018-19 – 24.0% of their total core grant for schools.
However, between 2013-14 and 2017-18, the number of children in special schools and with education, health and care plans (EHC plans) in mainstream schools rose by 10%, while the funding per pupil dropped by 2.6% for those with high needs and decreased for those without EHC plans.
These financial pressures are forcing local authorities to draw on their budgets for mainstream schools to support pupils with high needs. They are also using up their ring-fenced school reserves, which have dropped by 86.5% in the last four years.
The NAO warned that this was ‘not a sustainable approach’.
‘Access to the right support is crucial to the happiness and life chances of the 1.3 million pupils with SEND in England,’ said NAO head Gareth Davies.
‘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.’
Last Friday (6 September), the Department for Education announced it would review support for pupils with SEND.
Responding to the NAO’s report, 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 £700m 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.’
Christine Lenehan, director of the Council for Disabled Children (part of the National Children’s Bureau), welcomed the NAO’s report.
‘The National Audit Office has provided stark evidence of the growing numbers of children with complex needs and EHCPs,’ she said.
‘It is also clear that funding has not risen to meet these children’s needs, placing intolerable strain on school and local authority budgets.
‘Even the extra cash promised for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) in the education spending settlement will be insufficient to match the scale of the challenge.
‘But the noise about money in the system is drowning out the need for a clear, inclusive vision of education which fully meets the needs of children wherever they are educated.
‘In particular, pressure on special schools is leaving many with very limited aspirations for the children they look after. And hard-pressed mainstream schools look to strict behaviour policies to solve the problems of children that often have their root in impairment, mental health or deprivation.’