Public sector facing “frankly impossible” SEND crisis

5 Apr 24

Huge demand and lack of funding show limits of ‘obsolete’ system, say leaders

Class act

Class act: Entire SEND system is broken, experts warn (Image: iStock)


Teachers and support staff have warned of a crisis in funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), with seven out of eight saying the resources available in schools are insufficient to meet need.

In a survey of 8,000 members carried out by the National Education Union ahead of its annual conference, one in three respondents said their school had no behaviour support team whatsoever, while two in five reported no counsellor or occupational health specialist. 

Around a quarter had no educational psychologist, CAMHS support or speech and language therapist.

With waiting lists growing across England and Wales, 56% of teachers and support staff said they were not confident that a referral for SEND assessment, diagnosis or specialist support would lead to that pupil getting the help they needed. 

One respondent, whose school had no qualified special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) despite over a quarter of pupils having SEND, said the current system was failing children. 

“We do not have the resources, environments, skilled staff or time to support these students,” they said.

“Funding is completely inadequate and paying to support children with high-level need has wiped out our school budget and negatively impacted all other pupils.”

Daniel Kebede, joint general secretary of the NEU, said the crisis in SEND funding had seen schools “stretched to the limit” as children went through the education system without the support they needed.

“Teachers and leaders are losing faith in a system that should meet need, but either can’t or won’t,” he said.

“Local authorities are forced to ration support to parents after a long wait and this rationing is driving up the number of tribunals. 

“Undiagnosed SEND or unmet SEND need is frequently related to exclusions, and this will often come down to a lack of proper support.” 

It was in everyone’s interests of everyone to resource SEND properly and to ensure that children’s engagement in education was not jeopardised, he said. 

The Department for Education said it was actively delivering against its SEND and alternative provision plan, investing over £21m to train 400 more educational psychologists and increasing the number of teaching assistants by 59,600 from 2011.

“We want all children to have the chance to reach their potential, which is why we are increasing funding for young people with complex needs by over £10.5bn next year - up 60% in the last five years,” said a spokesperson.

But the Local Government Association said it did not believe the government’s plan would do anything to halt the growing numbers of children with education, health and care plans (EHCPs). 

“The SEND system is under huge financial strain, and councils continue to face significant challenges managing the rise in demand for support,” said a spokesperson.

Further concerns over the waiting times faced by children awaiting diagnosis have come from a leading thinktank which warned that the NHS is buckling under an “avalanche of need” for autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) services.

The Nuffield Trust said the “extraordinary, unpredicted and unprecedented” rise in demand for autism assessments and ADHD treatments had completely overtaken the NHS’s capacity to meet them. 

The impact of soaring waiting lists on children who were depending on an assessment and formal diagnosis to access essential support at school should not be underestimated, it said.  

In December, there were 172,022 patients with an open referral for suspected autism - the highest number ever reported, representing at least a five-fold increase since 2019. 

Four in five patients with a suspected autism referral who had been waiting over 13 weeks had not had their first appointment with a specialist, it found, in comparison with 44% of patients four years previously.

Nuffield Trust chief executive Thea Stein said it was “frankly impossible” to imagine how the current “obsolete” system could grow fast enough to meet rampant demand.

“We need to urgently understand the different elements of this complex picture and find a whole system approach across education, society at large and the health service,” she said. 

“Pumping more money into the current model certainly isn’t the solution: a radical rethink is required.”

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