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Special Educational Needs

Volume 823: debated on Monday 20 June 2022


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take (1) to increase the Special Educational Needs budget in the current financial year, and (2) to ensure that this is a separate and protected budget line in the education sector.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and with her permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, we are already increasing high needs funding for children and young people with more complex special educational needs and disabilities by £1 billion this financial year to a total of £9.1 billion as part of a schools funding allocation of £53.8 billion. It is important that local authorities and schools can use their budgets flexibly to assess what provision is required for the young people for whom they are responsible.

My Lords, there are currently more than 1 million children in the UK with special educational needs. In a Written Answer from the Minister received by my noble friend Lady Ritchie, it was disclosed that the mainstream allocation, which is supposed to represent £6,000 per student, was last year £4,136. As the funding is discretionary per local authority, as opposed to being allocated in a separate budget line by the Government, some children will get even less than that £4,000. In view of this, will the Government sort the problem by simply creating a separate budget line for SEN funding that they can then provide to local authorities in full?

I understand the point the noble Lord is making, but we believe it is very important that we give schools flexibility in how they spend their money. Local SENCOs, head teachers and other professionals working locally will be best placed to understand the needs of pupils in the school and the support they require.

My Lords, I declare my interests in this area, as in the register. Does the Minister agree that schools are not being properly prepared to teach children they know they will get in their classrooms on a regular basis? It is reckoned that, on average, you will get three dyslexics, for instance, in every mainstream class, and those with other special educational needs will bring that up to five, six or seven pupils. Unless we get more training for teachers to handle these problems, which they know are going to occur, we will always be going back to this budget. Would it not be much more sensible to prepare teaching staff and the establishment to handle these things without going to a special budget?

I think the noble Lord would acknowledge that we are working in that area. In particular, we have been supporting teachers in the use of assistive technology, which I know is something close to his heart, and by professional qualifications and training focusing on all the areas to which he alludes.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the catastrophic pressures and impacts on dwindling LA budgets, with countless pressures on schools themselves. What assessment have the Government made of the number of children with unmet needs?

The Government have made a big commitment to increasing funding in this area. High needs funding has risen by 40% over the past three years, but we work proactively with local authorities which are under particular pressure. We have a safety-valve programme, where we provide additional funding to those local authorities that can demonstrate they have a strategy for addressing their overspend.

My Lords, the noble Baroness said that she understood the point being made by my noble friend Lord Kennedy; I fear I did not entirely understand her answer. She appears to be saying that it does not matter that schools are not getting the money per pupil originally intended for them because they have flexibility to spend it as they wish. I do not quite see how those two things go together. Could she explain?

As the noble Baroness knows, schools get two amounts of funding for children. In the current financial year, they will receive directly almost £9 billion, and the notional SEN budget was £4.3 billion. We believe that it is best for them to decide how that is spent. The noble Baroness will also be aware that we are moving to the national funding formula, which will create greater consistency and transparency in how those funds are used.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned flexibility. We agree that schools should have flexibility to implement support for children with special educational needs. I have frequently been told by parents of children with special educational needs that the budget for their child and the staff employed are increasingly being used to cover staffing shortages in other areas and taken away from their children. Is that acceptable in the flexibility she talks about?

My Lords, I cannot comment without knowing a little more of the detail of the case. Perhaps the noble Baroness can share that, then I will be happy to look into it. I think that she is hinting at some of the strains in the system in terms of provision for children with special educational needs and those children in alternative provision. She will be aware that we published the SEND and AP Green Paper in March, which looks to provide a system that works for children but is sustainable. The consultation is open until the end of July.

My Lords, I recently visited a school in County Durham—not a church school in this instance—where 25% of the children had special educational needs. The head teacher pointed out to me the significance of not only the teachers but the teaching assistants, and the training that they too required, and said that there was pressure on her budget to sustain that level of staffing with some specialism. Can the Minister comment on that?

Again, different schools will approach these issues in different ways. Our commitment is to give them sufficient funding to deliver on the needs of children. However, the right reverend Prelate will be aware that there is some discretion in how schools define whether a child has special educational needs. One thing that we hope will come out of the Green Paper is much more consistency on that.

My Lords, is the Minister simply saying that equalisation of funding will be a good thing? Is it not the case that equalisation will mean that the poorer schools with the worst problems will have less funding than they have at present?

I apologise to the noble Lord: that was not the impression that I sought to give. We are looking for a consistent approach to funding so that children with the same level of needs in two parts of the country get the same per-pupil funding, which is not the case today. I hope that the noble Lord agrees that that is a good ambition.