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Education: Special Educational Needs Budget

Volume 800: debated on Thursday 17 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take further to the recent survey of local authorities in England which found that since 2014 approximately £400 million has been diverted from mainstream education budgets in order to pay for special needs education.

My Lords, we allow transfers of up to 0.5% from local authorities’ mainstream school budgets to pay for special needs education. This requires agreement from the local schools forum. Larger transfers must be approved by the Secretary of State. Next year we will increase high needs funding by £780 million. This increase in a single year should be compared with the reported £73 million that local authorities transferred from mainstream schools to high needs in 2018-19.

My Lords, the survey by the Times laid bare the extent to which local authorities are desperately trying to compensate for the lack of resources provided by central government to enable them to meet their funding requirements under the 2014 changes for SEND pupils. Yet even after the raiding of mainstream education budgets, thousands of SEND parents are left in despair as they attempt to get the support that their children need and are entitled to. It is no good the Minister referring to the election sweetener of additional funding for SEND, which is obviously too little and certainly too late. Annually, it would meet less than half the needs for special needs provision and would in no way reverse the cuts of recent years. Protecting the most vulnerable in society ought to be a priority for any Government. Why is it not for this one?

My Lords, it is absolutely a priority for this Government; that is why we have just announced a very substantial 8% increase per head of population for those aged between two and 18. It is put in place with a 5% uplift to the schools budget, which will also support lower SEN.

Does my noble friend agree that local authorities must accede to, and not obstruct, applications from parents of children with special needs who seek places in independent schools, where good provision is currently being made, usually in small classes, for around 85,000 children with special needs? I declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association.

My noble friend is correct that local authorities should not impede parents who want particular solutions. That is why, when the EHC legislation came through in 2014, we put parents much more at the heart of the entire process. We accept that the process has not been without teething troubles and are carrying out a review of it, which we had committed to previously.

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that any system that spends tens of millions of pounds on local authorities fighting unsuccessful appeals against EHCPs has fundamentally failed? If you are in a situation where parents have to fight the system to get what is given to them by law, something is fundamentally wrong.

I respectfully disagree with the noble Lord, because while local authorities lose a proportion of these appeals, they do not lose the entirety of each appeal. For example, a parent might win through appeal the right to send their child to a certain school but elements of the support that they asked for would not be granted.

My Lords, several heads in Coventry and Warwickshire have told me about the heavy demands on their energies and budgets from, to quote one primary head, children who are not on the SEN register but face horrific circumstances at home and so need extra help; for example, families who are homeless through domestic violence and children whose mental health is so poor—these are nine year-olds—that they threaten suicide. Does the Minister recognise the pressures on schools in mainstream education from children who do not meet the thresholds of special needs but who nevertheless have severe needs and require acute support? Is he confident that there is sufficient funding for them?

The right reverend Prelate is correct that there seems to be an increasing trend of mental health needs in young people, and I urge all noble Lords who are concerned with this area to look at why this is happening. It is certainly happening, but there is not enough discussion around why it is happening. To restate our commitment, we have increased high needs funding from £5 billion a year in 2013 to £6.3 billion this year and over £7 billion next year. As I mentioned in an earlier answer, we have increased core school budgets by 5%, which will indeed help with the lower levels of SEN not specifically addressed in the high needs budget.

In respect of children with special needs who require diagnosis and then further assessment—I am particularly thinking of those on the autism spectrum—when they reach the age of nine or 10 and the prospect of having to go on to a more senior school, that is a critical point for parents who are still waiting for diagnosis and assessment. One of the weaknesses is of course the question of the resources of CAMHS. How regularly does my noble friend’s department discuss the particular problems of this age group with CAMHS?

My Lords, I cannot answer that specific question but I am happy to write to my noble friend on the matter. As I mentioned earlier, we are carrying out a review of the SEN code of practice, which will be completed by the end of next year, and I will ask the relevant Ministers to ensure that that is part of that review.

My Lords, the modest increase in funding and the review are welcome, but very many parents and young people are extremely worried at the moment, as are the institutions they are applying to. Would the Minister, with his department, take a look at the serious financial situation of the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford and its potential lack of viability? I declare a historic interest in that I went to the Royal National College in its previous guise.

My Lords, I am very happy to accede to the request of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, to do that, and I will carry out some inquiries.

My Lords, can I take the Minister back to the reply he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on state schools impeding parents from applying to private schools for special educational needs? I declare an interest as I have a grandson who has special needs and who has applied to a special needs school outside the system. In most instances, state schools have to fund these private places, which do not come cheap. Can the Minister give an assurance that these schools, which provide excellent facilities that the state system may not supply, will have sufficient funds so that some of these children can access these services in the private sector?

My Lords, part of the reason for the very substantial increase in funding we have just announced is to provide more resources. I certainly cannot promise unlimited resources for all requests, but I believe that the £780 million we have just announced is substantial.

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that because of the funding problem for many schools, some primary schools have started to close their premises at Friday lunchtime. Can he now guarantee that all those schools will open for the full five days in quick time?

My Lords, I strongly object to the policy of the very limited number of schools that are doing this. There is absolutely no need for it; any school that feels the need to do it should write to me so that we can examine the budgets and see how well resources are being run. It makes me extremely angry and it is unnecessary.