Schools should take more special needs children, Government’s spending watchdog says

Camilla Turner
Schools are currently incentivised not to admit pupils with special educational needs and disability, NAO says  - PA

Mainstream schools should take more special needs children because it is costing too much to educate them elsewhere, the Government’s spending watchdog has found.

Schools are currently incentivised not to admit pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND), since they have to spend £6,000 from their own budget on each child before they can access additional pots of Government funding.  

The number of pupils being taught in special schools and alternative provision – which are much more expensive to run than mainstream schools - rose by 20.2 per cent from 2014 to 2018, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

Spending on independent special schools has also increased by 32.4 per cent over the same period of time. Children with more severe disabilities have an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, which is a legal document setting out what extra assistance they need and which type of school they will attend.

The cost per pupil in an independent special school was around £50,000, compared with £20,500 per pupil in a state special school, according to the NAO, and up to £18,000 per pupil with an EHC plan in a mainstream school.

The NAO report said that ministers should “review the incentives in the funding arrangements and the accountability system”, It should be changed so that mainstream schools are encouraged to admit and retain more pupils with special needs.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee said that based on current trends, the system is “not financially sustainable”, as she said ministers must urgently review its affordability.

Local authorities are increasingly overspending their budgets for children with special needs, the report found. Last year, 81.3 per cent of councils overspent compared with 47.3 per cent four years ago.  

Cllr Carl Les of the County Councils Network welcomed the report, saying it “echoes what county authorities have been arguing for a long time”.  

He said that “well-intentioned” reforms in 2014 expanded the eligibility criteria of EHC pans and meant that “as a result many of us have been forced to overspend in order to provide these vital services”.  

A Department for Education spokesperson said:  “Helping all children and young people reach their potential is one of the core aims of this Government, including those with special educational needs.  

“That is why the Prime Minister has committed to providing an extra £700 million next year to make sure these children get an education that helps them develop and thrive as adults.

“We have improved special educational needs support to put families at the heart of the system and give them better choice in their children's education, whether in mainstream or special school.”

Earlier this month, ministers announced they will launch a review into the support available for children with special needs.