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System to support vulnerable children with special needs is 'not sustainable', report finds

PUBLISHED: 09:11 12 September 2019 | UPDATED: 08:43 13 September 2019

Protesters march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Protesters march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The current system for helping some of the most vulnerable children in England's schools is not sustainable, a review has claimed.

Lily Millins, three, with her sign for the march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYLily Millins, three, with her sign for the march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The National Audit Office (NAO) identified "significant concerns" in the support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) as local councils struggle to cope with increasing demand and a real-terms fall in funding.

Norfolk County Council - which is currently rolling out £120m worth of investment to improve services for children with SEND - was among the contributors to the review, which examined systems for supporting children with SEND, funding and spending and the quality of support and experiences for pupils and parents.

A report by this newspaper last year revealed the crisis in special needs education in Norfolk as parents shared harrowing stories of their fights to get appropriate support.

In 2017 and 2018 the local government and social care ombudsman upheld 11 complaints against Norfolk County Council in relation to its support for children with special needs.

Max Hernandez Brandon, five, with the sign he designed for the march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYMax Hernandez Brandon, five, with the sign he designed for the march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

As well as opening up to four new special schools around the county in the next three years and creating more specialist places for children with SEND in mainstream schools, the council is pumping extra money and resources into its education, health and care plan (EHCP) team after government figures showed it had the second worst completion rates in the country.

Announcing the funding for EHCPs in January, the council said it had been hit with a steep rise in demand for plans - up by a third in recent years to more than 1,000 in 2018.

The NAO review, published on Wednesday, followed concerns from parents, carers and stakeholders about whether children with SEND were being effectively supported following substantial government reforms in 2014.

It found four in five local authorities (81.3pc) had overspend their high needs budget - which goes to help children with SEND - in the 2017/18 year.

Protesters march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYProtesters march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

As the number of pupils with high needs has risen, the NAO said increases in central government funding had not kept pace, resulting in a 2.6pc reduction in real-terms funding for each pupil with high needs between 2013/14 and 2017/18.

In the same period, local authorities' spending on independent special school placements for children with SEND rose by 32.4pc.

The NAO concluded that the Department for Education "did not fully assess the likely financial consequences" of the reforms in 2014 before pressing ahead with them.

Norwich was among almost 30 cities and towns around the UK which hosted SEND crisis marches in May, with teachers, parents, carers, children and local government figures coming together to call on central government for more funding.

Protest signs for the march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYProtest signs for the march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

John Fisher, cabinet member for children's services at Norfolk County Council, said the council's £120m investment would provide an extra 500 school places.

The new schools planned include a specialist school on the former Alderman Swindell site in Great Yarmouth and a school in Fakenham for children with autism, as well as a partly government-funded school for children with complex needs.

"Scores of mainstream schools across the county are also submitting bids to run new or bigger specialist units as part of the programme," Mr Fisher said.

"We have brilliant specialist schools in Norfolk and some great work happening in mainstream schools - our investment means we can build on this."

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