30th May 2017

We must highlight the value of special schools amid funding challenges

We must highlight the value of special schools amid funding challenges Cover Photo

Claire Dorer, chief executive of The National Association of Independent Schools & Non-Maintained Special Schools (NASS), looks at SEND funding policy...

It has been 14 years since Government last focused on special schools. In 2017 we have not one but two policy initiatives which turn the spotlight firmly on the sector.

Whilst planned reforms to school funding have been reported widely in the media, less has been said about the accompanying proposals to reform High Needs Funding. However, the proposed changes will lead to major changes in how local authorities are funded by Government to, in turn, fund special schools. Current allocations are decided by historic factors – mainly how much an authority has spent on High Needs in the past. This means that apparently similar authorities receive very different amounts from Government. The new proposals will move funding to a formula-based system that will determine funding levels on a range of factors ranging from low achievement levels to child deprivation within each authority. The aim is to have a fairer system of funding. On paper, it all sounds very reasonable. However, this is a system of redistribution of funds, meaning whilst some authorities would gain under the new formula, others would lose.

Fortunately, the Government has recognised that it would be unhelpful if any local authority lost funding under the new system. However, the proposed new system assumes that the numbers of children with High Needs will remain static at a time when we are seeing a growth in the number of children with SEND. Effectively, we will be finding ways to make the same amount of money spread across more children and young people and this is a source of worry for both special schools and local authorities. We will all need to work together to find ways of using money as effectively as possible to ensure that children with SEND get access to the right interventions and placements at the right time.

Alongside funding discussions we also have the major review of Residential Special Schools, led by Dame Christine Lenehan, Director of Council for Disabled Children. Dame Christine will be exploring the role these schools play in meeting complex needs and considering outcomes for children.

We know that when money is tight, scrutiny is often closest on those placements that cost the most amount of money – usually those for children and young people with the most complex needs. We spent a lot of time putting together a solid evidence-base for the review to highlight both the value of the sector and the challenge most parents have in accessing it. We had over 300 responses to our parents’ survey and although each story is unique but we saw some common themes. For the vast majority of parents, a special school place for their child was an active choice and very much valued. However, many parents noted the struggle they had been through to get their placement and the lack of support they had received early on. Almost half had started tribunal proceedings at some point.

We would like to see parents have easier access to specialist placements and not to have to face such a battle to get them. We hope that Dame Christine’s review will affirm the value of our schools and help Government think more strategically about how we support children with complex needs. However, we would also like to see more investment in supporting children in their local areas. As a group of specialist schools, we would love to see better structures for those in the independent and non-maintained sectors to be able to share their expertise with mainstream schools but we think this is something the funding reforms currently miss.

Whilst the Government will report on both the High Needs Funding Reforms and Lenehan Review in 2017, we won’t see changes take effect until 2018. That makes the rest of the year a busy time of influencing for those of us working with special schools and local authorities. You can stay in touch with our activities by following us on Twitter @NASSCHOOLS.

For more information about the NASS, visit www.nasschools.org.uk