Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Funding

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 12th February 2019.

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Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats 2:30 pm, 12th February 2019

It is a shocking indictment, but it brings to the surface the dilemmas that many local authorities face when they are forced into a position of rationing. They are not allowed to describe it as rationing, because they would be admitting to a legal offence that could be held against them in a tribunal, but we all know that rationing takes place.

Rationing happens in several forms. One, which relates to the hon. Lady’s intervention, is that local authorities drag their feet with what were once called statements but are now called healthcare plans. I believe that the National Autistic Society says that 50% of parents with autistic children wait more than a year for those plans to appear. In other cases, provision is cut to well below the necessary standard: the Young Vision Alliance draws attention to the fact that one of the casualties of the recent rationing has been the issuing of aids to children with visual impairments, which is becoming a serious problem.

Another device that authorities resort to, although of course they do not present it as such, is refusing residential places. In most cases, inclusion in mainstream schools is much the best course of action, but in other cases residential schools are more appropriate. Yet, authorities refuse to agree to them, so the parents have to become carers while the children sit at home, become socially isolated and are never able to develop properly into adulthood.

The main consequence of the conflict between supply and demand is that more and more parents are having to go to tribunal. There has been a 20% growth in tribunals in each of the past few years, and 86% of parents win them, although perhaps “win” is not the right word—in some ways it is a lose-lose situation. Nevertheless, that is an extraordinary figure. It indicates that many local authorities are pushing parents to tribunal, knowing that they themselves will lose, incurring significant costs—about £34 million a year, I believe—simply as a way of holding off demand that they are legally required to meet.

My concluding section is about solutions. How do we deal with this? First, there is a broad acceptance that children should be kept, as far as possible, in mainstream and maintained schools rather than in more demanding provision elsewhere. That is true for educational reasons—inclusion is a good philosophy and has good results—but it is also more economical. The figures are striking: in mainstream and maintained schools, the cost is about £6,000 more for SEND pupils than for non-SEND pupils, while for maintained special schools the cost is about £23,000 more, and for private special schools it is about £40,000 more. In many cases, the private special schools perform a very important function and are of very high quality, which is clearly why people seek them out, but there is certainly some evidence that those schools are exploiting monopoly provision and taking advantage of local authorities. In some cases, they should be referred to the Competition and Markets Authority.

Notwithstanding that issue, the differential suggests an enormous demand for specialist provision that the maintained sector should cater for, but the trend is in the opposite direction. Last year, for the first time, the majority of special needs pupils were not catered for in mainstream maintained schools—a big backward step that reflects the pressures that I have described.

The second clearly undesirable mechanism being used is shifting the burden to other schools, which unfortunately is happening in my own borough. The council is deeply regretful, but it has had to ask the Department for permission to raid the schools budget because the special needs block is grossly insufficient. That is bad not just in itself, because schools are under financial pressure, but because it sets mainstream pupils against special needs pupils. It is quite wicked, actually—it creates resentment in an area in which we should be united in compassion.