Between them Carolyn Morgan, Alison Beane, Sally Garrett, Jenny Bone and Penny Barratt lead 13 special schools stretching from Portsmouth to Sunderland, many of which are designated outstanding. They are also Senior Partners for our Network of Excellence, which includes 85 special schools. They write:
There has been a steep rise in children and young people with SEND and Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) in recent years, driven by population growth; medical advances so children born with disabilities survive and live longer; increased diagnosis of conditions like autism; and increased parental expectations about the support their child should receive. Exclusions from mainstream are also contributing to the high demand on special schools and alternative provision.
The needs of some of these children could and should be met in mainstream primary and secondary schools. Special and mainstream schools in Challenge Partners have been working together to share and build expertise about how best to achieve this. But a combination of squeezed budgets, tight accountability and lack of know-how can mean that learners who could succeed with the right support in mainstream are being pushed towards special schools.
Tribunals and local authorities force us and colleagues across the sector to take more students than we have places for. The Bridge School in London is 13 above its PAN of 192, Mary Rose Academy in Portsmouth was built for 110 pupils, and now has 146 agreed places but 152 on roll, and one Ascent academy has doubled admission numbers from 80 to 160 in a decade.
This rising demand is set against funding that is falling in real terms. There has been some extra funding for SEND, but in most local authorities it is plugging gaps elsewhere in the high needs budget and not being passed to schools.
In addition, special school leaders face growing demand to fill gaps in other services and have no choice but to provide healthcare through education budgets, which may include speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, medical equipment and counselling for students.
The extension of services for children and young people with SEND up until the age of 25, in 2014, means that each year since then there has been an additional cohort of young people who remain the responsibility of education services (whereas previously they would have moved into adult services).
Taken together the rise in demand and squeeze on budgets leaves many schools in an unsustainable position. The lack of funding has affected staffing levels, leadership capacity and the ability to make basic repairs to school buildings.
Trusts have taken decisions to cut supply teachers and leave support staff to run classrooms, as well as losing some key pastoral posts, paring back leadership teams and reducing services such as occupational therapy. Some have reduced the number of teaching assistants for pupils with PMLD so staff are over-stretched, and struggle every day to meet learning needs as well as care needs. A few have had to employ some unqualified staff.
In Portsmouth, local authority funding for outreach to support mainstream schools to meet the needs of more complex learners has been cut by 80%.
There are also technical issues with the way funding is allocated based on historic spending patterns, not current needs. Funding varies from place-to-place meaning the same needs attract different funding in different areas, creating a postcode lottery for learners.
Teacher salary and pension rises, while welcome, have only been part-funded (out of decreasing budgets). The support staff pay increase hit special schools particularly hard, as so many staff in special schools are support staff and no funding was passed on to schools to help fund this.
Despite promises to provide additional money to the high needs block, it is unclear whether this will actually reach special schools and pupils. Given the size of the current deficit, it’s unlikely to make a real dent or offer real increases in special school budgets. While we are not seeking more money at the expense of the equally needed increase in mainstream funding, we would like to see sufficient investment that the needs of our wonderful pupils can be met.
- Carolyn Morgan is CEO of Ascent Academies Trust and Senior Partner of a Challenge Partners hub in Sunderland; Alison Beane is Executive Headteacher of the Solent Academies Trust and Senior Partner of the Portsmouth Hub; Sally Garrett is Headteacher at The Ashley School Academy Trust and Senior Partner of the East Coast hub; and Dr Penny Barratt is CEO of The Bridge London Trust and Senior Partner of the London Special and AP hub; Jenny Bone is Principal of Ash Field Academy in Leicester and Senior Partner of Ash Field Hub.