Skip to main content

School Funding: Special Educational Needs

Volume 838: debated on Thursday 23 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the finding of the Sutton Trust’s School Funding and Pupil Premium 2024 survey published on 19 April, particularly with regard to special educational needs.

My Lords, including additional pay and pension grants, school funding is increasing to £60.7 billion this year, the highest ever in real terms per pupil, supporting school leaders to meet their costs. This includes over £10.5 billion in high-needs funding, an increase of over 60% from the 2019-20 allocations. Pupil premium funding is rising to over £2.9 billion, a 10% increase from 2021-22. School leaders have flexibility in how they use this to best support disadvantaged pupils.

My Lords, I am afraid that the Minister’s response does not reflect the reality in schools today. Pupil premium is additional funding given to schools to help support disadvantaged pupils, so it is scandalous that the Sutton Trust review found that half of school leaders were having to use some of those funds to plug gaps elsewhere in their budgets, and three-quarters of head teachers said that they had had to reduce the number of teaching assistants, despite an increase of 20% in the number of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities since 2019. For over half of that period, the Minister has held the title of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the School System. As parents of school-age children, not least of those with SEND, consider how to vote on 4 July, will the Minister offer them an apology?

No, the Minister certainly would not feel that to be appropriate. Looking at how pupil premium can be used, the Education Endowment Foundation has directed three areas: high-quality teaching, which the Government have supported through the national professional qualifications programme, targeted academic support, and tackling non-academic barriers. I very much appreciate and respect the Sutton Trust’s research, but it does not explain that the number of teaching assistants, a figure cited by the noble Lord, rose by 5,300 last year, up by 59,600 since 2010-11.

My Lords, it would be remiss not to thank the Minister for her time in that role. She has always been courteous and on top of her brief. I think she is just a decent person, actually. As she said, the Sutton Trust’s is a highly respected annual report on the state of schooling in this country. I do not think anybody can be unaware that schools are struggling with budgets and having to move money around. One of the biggest findings that concerns me in that report is that there has been a 74% cut in funding towards teaching assistants. These are the lifeblood of any school, particularly in supporting children with special educational needs. Presumably the new Minister’s in-tray will have to deal with this problem. Does this Minister not accept that we need to sort out the funding properly for all our schools?

We give schools a great deal of discretion over how they use their budgets. It is right that we want the experts who know their community to use funds as they see fit, and the noble Lord knows from his own experience that schools use these budgets in very different ways. I was in a school recently which actually no longer used teaching assistants, but had dropped the class size dramatically as a result. It had teachers but a much smaller number of pupils in the class. The underlying principle, that we should trust our trusts and school leaders on how they spend the budget, is the one that any Government should support.

My Lords, we are talking about pupil premiums, and the Government once promised the introduction of an arts premium, which was never delivered. It may be a bit late now, but I hope that whatever Government are in charge on 17 July will reconsider that.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister join me in congratulating Thames Christian School in Battersea, which has recently won a prestigious RIBA award for the architecture of its building? In the head teacher’s response to that award, he outlined that, of the 400 students in that fee-paying school, 200 have special educational needs. What advice is being given to schools such as that about how they might approach supporting parents who are unsure about whether their children can continue if the school fees are increased?

I am delighted to join my noble friend in celebrating that success. That matter will be for individual parents in independent schools to work through. Independent schools have focused very much on supporting children and their parents where bursaries are required, but that is up to the parents and those schools.

My Lords, the Government always ignore the fact that they have had 14 years of cuts before they then make an announcement of some extra funding—which normally works out to about £3.50 per school. When will the Minister take a realistic view that schools need massive improvements and massive increases in their budgets if they are to deliver a good service?

I am not sure where £60.7 billion relates to £3.50, as they are quite a way apart. I point the noble Lord to where our children are in the international league tables and the improvements we have made. He can roll his eyes, but facts are facts.

My Lords, what, if anything, in this highly respected report suggests that putting VAT on any form of education would be beneficial to our young people in this country?

My Lords, research has found that children from the most disadvantaged areas are less likely to be identified with SEND and that they face higher thresholds for accessing support. Is that further evidence of the failure of this Government’s education policy?

No, I do not accept that. As I said, this Government have focused very much on supporting schools and teachers to do their critical job brilliantly, and we should not question that. The support that we have put in for special educational needs has been unparalleled compared to any previous era.

My Lords, the report also says that we have been cutting the use of information technology; I remind the House of my interests. Can the Minister tell us of anything that gives more promise for someone with special educational needs to function well in the school system—and in the workplace later on—than using the correct form of assistive technology?

Having a highly skilled teacher to work with, combined with the assistive technology to which the noble Lord referred, is the critical part. That is one of the reasons that Huawei has worked with the sector: to reform the training not just for SENCOs but for those on their initial teacher training and early career frameworks to support children in mainstream education.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the wonderful job that she has done at the Dispatch Box. I also congratulate her on her patience in listening to questions from Members of the Opposition demanding more resources, when, as a party, it is not prepared to commit itself to a single cent of extra expenditure.

He is renowned for his kindness. This Government have backed education from day one and see it as absolutely critical for our future. Given the opportunity, we will continue to do so.

My Lords, I wish the Minister well for the future; she has been very accommodative over the years. Is it not true that, from this September, spending on schools will have returned to 2000 levels in real terms?

From this September, funding for schools will be the highest it has ever been per pupil in real terms.