Councils share the Government’s ambition of making sure every child with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) gets the high-quality support that they need. Reforms set out in the Children and Families Act 2014 failed to achieve the goal of improving provisions for children with special educational needs and disabilities and were not supported by sufficient powers or funding to allow councils to meet the needs of children with SEND or hold health and education partners to account for their contributions to local SEND systems.
- Councils have long called for a cross-Government strategy for children and young people. We would like the Department for Levelling Up, Hosing and Communities (DLUHC) to coordinate capacity issues impacting children’s social care, SEND and early years across Government. The LGA would be happy to facilitate cross government local central partnership/delivery boards as we provided to coordinate COVID and Brexit responses.
- Government should urgently bring forward legislation that gives councils the powers to lead local SEND systems and to hold health and education partners to account for their work supporting children and young people with special needs.
- The previously announced additional £440 million, or 4.3 per cent increase in council high needs funding for 2024/25, does not go far enough in helping councils support all children and young people with SEND, when demand for Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) continues to rise year-on-year. A total of 517,000 children and young people currently have an EHCP, an increase of 9 per cent in the last year alone.
- The Government should use the SEND improvement plan to recognise the interconnection between special educational needs, emotional needs and mental health. However, the current proposals do not go far enough in tackling the rising demand of mental health need, nor sufficiently focus on the particular needs of children with special educational needs. In particular, roll out of mental health support teams in schools to all of the country is required as is investment in community mental health support for children who cannot access school-based mental health provision.
- Children and young people with learning disabilities are more than four times more likely to develop a mental health problem than average. This means that 14 per cent or one in seven of all children and young people with mental health difficulties in the UK will also have a learning disability.
- Good quality early years provision (early education and childcare) can generate sustained and significant improvements on children’s outcomes, reducing disparities in later life. However, both councils and early year providers need sufficient funding, resources and tools to properly support children with SEND and their families.
Education starts long before school, and a strong early years sector can maximise the life chances of all children as part of our shared ambition with Government to level-up communities and reduce inequalities across the country.
Good quality early years provision (early education and childcare) can generate sustained and significant improvements on children’s outcomes, reducing disparities in later life. Not only does good quality provision have a positive impact on children’s development, but it also ensures that parents and carers can feel confident in accessing childcare. Securing enough high-quality childcare for children to get the places they need is something that time and energy should be invested into. A mixed early years and childcare market can ensure there is flexibility to meet the needs of children and their families.
Local authorities have an essential role in getting this right. Whilst recent announcements expanding early years entitlements to the children of working families from 9 months are welcome, the early years sector is concerned about being able to provide high quality, sufficient places to children. We are aware that some settings are already struggling to support children with SEND in their settings. The sector has long raised concerns regarding its underfunding, and we remain concerned that there is not sufficient funding to fully support this rollout.
Schools have been raising concerns about their financial stability with councils, with many facing increased costs from fuel, energy and food for school meals, alongside the need to fund agreed staff pay rises, and support a growing number of pupils experiencing disadvantage.
The LGA is concerned that the 1.9 per cent increase in per pupil funding for 2024/25 does not go far enough in addressing the funding challenges that schools are currently facing. The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ annual education spending report, published on the 11 December, estimates that the core schools budget of £58.6 billion for 2024/25, while reversing past reductions, will only return per-pupil school spending to 2010 levels, based on standard measures of economy-wide inflation.
Councils share the Government’s ambition of making sure every child with SEND gets the high-quality support that they need. The previous reforms to the SEND system set out in the Children and Families Act 2014 have, however, failed to achieve the goal of improving provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
Placing children and young people at the centre of the SEND system was right, but the reforms set out in the Act were not supported by sufficient powers or funding to allow councils to meet the needs of children with SEND or hold health and education partners to account for their contributions to local SEND systems.
The Government’s SEND improvement plan acknowledges that implementing reforms will take several years and while the additional high needs funding that has been made available via the ‘safety valve’ and ‘Delivering Better Value in SEND’ programmes is welcome, these programmes do not address the fundamental cost and demand issues that are driving more councils into deficit and threaten the future financial viability of local government.
We are also concerned that the improvement plan does not include proposals to give councils additional powers to be able to lead SEND systems effectively. The LGA does not believe it would be possible or desirable for the Department for Education (DfE) or Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) to build the capacity and expertise to hold partners to account in the detail needed for co-operation on both developing and delivering the local plans. Councils, education settings and Integrated Care Boards must instead be accountable to each other, not Whitehall.
The LGA is concerned that the improvement plan will raise the expectations of children with SEND, as well as their parents and carers, of what a reformed SEND system will be able to deliver and by when (“we have especially listened to the views of children and young people with SEND and in alternative provision, and their families.” Paragraph 5, page 17). Parental confidence in a new SEND system will be crucial if it is to work effectively and the Government must be careful to manage expectations with regards to the pace of reform given the planned timetable.
The LGA supports proposals to deliver greater capacity to address existing supply issues in the SEND system. An additional £2.6 billion over three years for SEND capital is also welcome, as is the flexibility to spend this money on specialist units in mainstream settings, as well as new special schools. Feedback from councils, however, is that the speed at which new special school places can be brought online is too slow.
It has long been highlighted that funding for early entitlements is insufficient, which is impacting the quality and cost of childcare provision, the sustainability of providers, and the availability of good support for children with SEND. Long-standing challenges caused by the underfunding of early years provision are now being exacerbated by the rising cost of living and inflationary pressures.
The LGA is keen to work with the Department for Education to identify opportunities to speed this process up. Delivering additional capacity focuses on education and the Department should provide further information on their work with the Department for Health and Social care to secure additional capacity in both health and care. An example would be the provision of therapeutic and preventative mental health services which remains a huge challenge for children and young people with SEND to access.
Any reform of the school and high needs funding formula should both provide long-term certainty on the overall amount of funding being made available, and also address anomalies in the existing system, such as deficits sitting with councils while any budget surpluses sit with schools. Allowing councils access to these surpluses would speed up efforts to manage down their high needs deficits.
Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) and high needs funding pressures are one of the biggest challenges that councils with education responsibilities are currently facing. This is the result of an ever-increasing demand for SEND support and the growing number of children and young people who have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). Department for Education (DfE) statistics show that at January 2023 there were over 517,000 children with an EHCP, an increase of 9 per cent on 2022. The number of EHCPs has increased every year since they were introduced. We do not believe that the proposals set out in the Government’s SEND and Alternative Provision improvement plan will result in this increase either slowing down or stopping.
The Society of County Treasurers (SCT) conducts regular analyses of council high needs block deficits and the results of their most recent survey, undertaken in March 2022 show that the total deficit facing those councils that responded stands at £1.36 billion, rising to £2.6 billion in 2024/25. Extrapolating those figures for all councils gives an estimated deficit of £1.9 billion in March 2022, rising to £3.6 billion by 2025.
While the LGA has welcomed the decision taken by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Community’s (DLUHC) to extend the statutory override on the treatment of DSG deficits to March 2026, we remain concerned that unless major reforms to the SEND system are implemented in the meantime, it will be impossible for these deficits to be managed down. Their return to council budget sheets could result in severe financial pressures for some.
Nor do we believe that the ‘Safety valve’ programme for those councils with the biggest DSG deficits or the Delivering Better Value in SEND programme will result in council high needs deficits being eliminated in the absence of reform prior to March 2026. We are, therefore, calling for the Government to write off all high needs deficits as a matter of urgency to ensure that councils are not faced with having to cut other services to balance budgets through no fault of their own or their residents.
For councils to manage sufficiency effectively and ensure the right provision in the right places, they need appropriate powers and resources. Many councils feel constrained by their inability to support new providers to set up in areas of disadvantage and their inability to stop new, typically large, chains, setting up in areas where there is already sufficient local provision.
Councils are frustrated when they are unable to stop providers from setting up in areas where there is already excess and have limited ability to incentivise providers or ensure that provision is of high quality. Having a mixed market of provision will bring about the best results for children and families. However, the costs associated with different types of provision need to be recognised.
Furthermore, local authority early years teams are under significant pressures and despite some grant funding, have raised concerns about their capacity to support the market alongside limited tools and levers. Some local authorities still have well-resourced Family Information Service teams that provide detailed support to the community. For others, it will be an add-on for some people’s roles. Without greater capacity building into early years teams, some providers will not be able to access the positive support that can be gained from these expert staff. This is under increasing pressure given the expansion to entitlements.
There should be a national review of the Family Information Service (FIS) to ensure it is fit for purpose and delivering on what parents need to use or access, particularly for those with children who have special educational needs and disabilities, and there should be flexibility for local areas to choose how best to communicate and engage with their local populations.
Children and young people with learning disabilities are more than four times more likely to develop a mental health problem than average. This means that 14 per cent or one in seven of all children and young people with mental health difficulties in the UK will also have a learning disability.
Autistic children and young people are more likely than the general population to experience a range of mental health problems, including hyperactivity disorders, anxiety, and depressive disorders.
Recent proposals by central government do not go far enough in tackling the rising demand of mental health need, nor sufficiently focus on the particular needs of children with special educational needs. In particular, roll out of mental health support teams in schools to all of the country is required as is investment in community mental health support for children who cannot access school-based mental health provision. Alongside a focused plan for children’s mental health, the Government should use the SEND improvement plan to recognise the interconnection between special educational needs, emotional needs and mental health.