Special educational needs crisis

Published on Friday, 24 February 2012 09:22
Written by Scott Buckler

MPs have expressed shock that almost a third of 18-year-olds with special educational needs are not in any form of education, employment or training

The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"It is shocking that almost a third of young people with a Statement of special educational needs at the age of 16 are not in any form of education, employment or training two years later.

The Government spent £640 million on special education for 16- to 25-year-olds in 2009-10, yet too many of these young people are falling through the gaps after they leave compulsory education, damaging their life chances and leaving a legacy of costs to the taxpayer.

The system is extremely complex and difficult to navigate, with an array of different providers including schools, FE colleges and specialist providers.  Too many parents and young people are not given the information they need to make decisions about what is right for them, with many losing hope.

Parents need to know what support their child is entitled to, how it can be accessed, and how well different options would meet their child's needs. But three quarters of local authorities do not give parents any information at all about the respective performance of schools, FE colleges and specialist providers.

The Department doesn't know how much money is actually spent on supporting young people with special educational needs. The huge variation between local authorities in funding per student suggests that a postcode lottery is at work. The Department's proposals to change the way that special education is funded are an opportunity to make the system simpler, fairer and more transparent.

It is right for local authorities to decide how to meet the needs of young people in their area – but local people must have access to clear information so that they can hold local authorities to account for how well they deliver."

Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 70th Report of this Session which examined the Department's oversight of special education for 16- to 25-year-olds. This was on the basis of evidence from the Department for Education, the Young People's Learning Agency, the Principal of Abingdon and Witney College, and representatives of two organisations which provide support and information to young people and professionals about special education, Disability Alliance and nasen.

In 2009-10, the Department for Education spent around £640 million on special education support for 147,000 students aged 16-25. The system for delivering and funding post-16 special education is complex and devolved, and students may receive post-16 special education support in schools, further education colleges or independent specialist providers, each of which is funded differently. Most young people with special educational needs make their own choice of where to study, while responsibility for provision and for placing around 30,000 students with higher-level needs is devolved to local authorities. The number of young people with special educational needs in post-16 education has grown in recent years, making it all the more important that the Department makes the best possible use of the funding available for these students.

We are concerned that this vital support for young people has not consistently been given the priority it deserves. It is shocking that 30% of young people with a Statement of special educational needs at age 16 are not in education, employment or training at all by the time they are 18. Too many young people with special educational needs are therefore falling through the gaps when they leave compulsory education, with a potential life-long legacy of lost opportunities and costs to the public purse. Students with higher-level needs are placed on the basis of statutory assessments of need; however, witnesses emphasised just how patchy the quality of these assessments can be. The opportunity for reform presented by the Department's recent Special Educational Needs Green Paper should be used to address our concerns in this important area and to put students at the heart of the system. We welcome the spirit of the Department's Green Paper, and expect to see both the Committee’s findings and those of the National Audit Office report reflected in the Department’s strategy.

Gaps in data about performance mean that young people and their families lack easy access to important information to help them decide which provision is best for them. Only one quarter of local authorities provide parents with any information on education providers' outcomes. We heard that the special education system is hard for parents to navigate, with some driven to despair when searching for appropriate support for their child. The Department's Special Educational Needs Green Paper proposes that local authorities "communicate a clear local offer for families to clarify what support is available and from whom." We hope this proposal will lead to clear policies and statements setting out what support young people are entitled to, backed by the ability to access the right advice and support.

There are three main funding streams for post-16 special education support, and responsibility for these is devolved primarily to the Young People's Learning Agency. Funding to support students in further education colleges and independent specialist providers is given by the Agency directly to the provider. For independent specialist providers, this funding is based on an assessment of individual students' needs. Funding to support students in schools is given by the Agency to local authorities, via the non-ring-fenced 'SEN Block Grant'. The Department does not know how much of this grant is actually spent on post-16 special education, and the large variation across local authorities in average SEN Block Grant per statemented student suggests that the present arrangements result in a postcode lottery for students.

The Department does not have the information it needs to determine whether its policy objectives are being met or value for money is being achieved. Young people with special educational needs cover a wide spectrum of needs and abilities. Students with more complex needs may have highly individual learning aims, and these are not adequately reflected in the Department’s current information about performance. The Department needs to know that its funding is getting the best results for all young people, whatever their level of need. It needs to develop better ways of understanding students’ outcomes, which reflect individual needs but allow the performance of different providers and local authorities in supporting young people to be properly assessed and compared.

The Department also needs to improve the information available on local authority performance, particularly if it wants to achieve more effective local accountability. The system for delivering special education is highly devolved, yet the information available to local people tells them little about how well their local authority is meeting young people’s needs. A standard and transparent dataset, including relevant expenditure and performance data across all local authorities, would enable local authorities to be more accountable to their communities.


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