Some reflections by Chris Owen, our education and children’s services associate, about the factors that are exerting pressure on high needs funding, which are making it even harder to achieve a ‘level playing field’ for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in England.

  • Mainstream schools’ funding is under pressure
  • Schools’ accountability is predominantly based on the results of tests and exams
  • The mainstream, notional SEN budget ‘buys’ less support
  • All these factors exert upward pressures on the costs of schooling and support for children with SEND

Mainstream schools’ funding is under pressure

  • The total school population has been increasing year-on-year: from about 6.8 million in 2010 to about 7.5 million in 2018, an increase of 11%. This increase is expected to continue to 2027, though at a slower rate (3 – 4%), with higher numbers in secondary schools and sixth forms.[1]
  • Analysis by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that ‘real term’ funding for schools has reduced by 8% over the past eight years and that ‘per pupil’ funding is 4% lower over the past two years.[2]

Most headteachers report planning deficit budgets for 2018-19 and 80% had implemented reductions in teaching assistants.[3] The latter has particular implications for pupils with SEND. The difficulty faced by schools (and FE colleges) with balancing their budgets, provide further upward pressures on the SEND system. Evidence that I’ve heard from SENCOs and parents points to schools where EHC needs assessments are being sought, despite a pupil responding well at SEN support, largely down to cost pressures. Other examples include where EHCPs are being successful, meaning the ‘top-up’ support could be scaled down, but school leaders discourage requesting any change.

Schools’ accountability is predominantly based on the results of tests and exams

  • Parents of a child with SEN are more likely to be ‘discouraged’ to choose particular schools or to experience their child being ‘off-rolled’[4]. These trends, appear unevenly spread across schools in England (6% of schools account for over 30% of off-rolled pupils). [5]

In my work I have heard numerous accounts from headteachers and from educators who support schools that the increasingly academic requirements of the curriculum and assessment based on exams and tests has resulted in greater pressure on more pupils, especially those with SEND.

Primary schools are looking to intervene earlier with children below ‘expected’ learning and many offer a narrower range of learning strategies; reducing flexibilities that previously helped those with additional needs stay engaged. The effect of this is to ‘shift the goal-posts’: pupils at SEN support are more likely to exhaust their ‘allowance’ or notional support sooner, so be put forward for an EHC needs assessment at a younger age.

The mainstream, notional SEN budget ‘buys’ less support

  • While the number of children with SEND has been increasing, the budgets for children’s services in local authorities have been decreasing and NHS children’s services contracting.
    Contributions from Government to local, children’s services have decreased by an estimated £2.4 billion since 2010-11, consequently there has been a reduction of, on average, 40% in local authorities’ spend on prevention and early intervention.[6]
  • Most learners with SEND at school are at ‘SEN support’: 11.6% of school pupils in 2018, compared to 2.7% who have an education health and care plan (EHCP). The proportion of pupils at SEN support has increased for the first time since 2010, the number increasing by 32,000 between 2017 and 2018. [7]
  • Most of the budget for a mainstream school is made up of the age-weighted pupil unit (AWPU), based on its number of pupils, and an amount for additional needs (‘notional SEN budget’). Across England the AWPU averages at about £4,000 per pupil (less for primary, more for secondary), plus, as a ‘rule of thumb’, £6,000 per pupil ‘notional SEN budget’. This ‘rule of thumb’ has not changed since introduced in the 2015.

In practice, most support services that schools have been used to involving in support for children with SEND are now, either, no longer provided, or require the school to buy them in. The knock-on effect is that the quantity of support that is the equivalent of £6,000 per year is significantly lower today than in 2011. Funding for mainstream schools also operates on the built-in assumption that £6,000 per pupil ‘notional SEN budget’ provides equivalent support irrespective of the location. Since most support is practitioner time, the buy-in costs in inner London are higher than in Cumbria or Cornwall.

I find there is inconsistency across the whole SEND system for ‘SEN support’; with the arrangements in early years, schools and colleges all being different. Although a mainstream school’s budget allocation for SEN is ‘notional’, this figure acts as a proxy of the amount of support that should be available. For children in early years or students in FE colleges, the approach taken to those at ‘SEN support’ is expected to be similar to that in schools, however, there is no indicative figure to guide the quantity of support. In early years, local authorities operate a fund that providers and nurseries can apply to for children with additional needs. Whilst, in FE colleges, finance for students at SEN support is expected to be covered from the ‘disadvantage factors’ included in each college’s funding formula. There is little clarity about how much this amounts to per student nor strong accountability arrangements for the achievements of students at SEN support.

All these factors exert upward pressures on the costs of schooling and support for children with SEND

Consequences include:

  • Increasing numbers of children and young people with an EHCP: This number increased by 11% from 2018 to 2019; an increase of 34,200. Numbers of children and young people with an EHCP have been increasing at a similar annual rate since new SEND Code of Practice was implemented in 2015.[8]
  • An increasing proportion of pupils with an EHCP attending special schools: from 38% in 2010 to 44% in 2018 and, since 2016, more pupils with an EHCP in years 7 to 11 attend special schools than mainstream schools.[9] The proportion of all pupils in a mainstream secondary school with an EHCP has been falling for the past ten years
  • The number of pupils with SEND excluded from mainstream school and those placed in alternative provision (AP) is increasing: The number permanently excluded from school has increased by 43% between 2015 to 2017, to 7,720; 45% of all these have SEND[10]. It is estimated that there are over 48,000 pupils attending AP, a figure that increases year-on-year.[11]

There are nearly 1.3 million pupils with SEND in the English education system. They have a legal entitlement to a good education, but these factors show that this is becoming harder and harder to sustain. Even though there has been some increase in funding for SEND, the NAO identify that there has been a ‘real terms’ reduction in high needs funding per pupil of 2.6%[10].

The financial pressures, combined with upward demand for places and increasingly complex needs of children, make it even more important for LAs to plan school places for pupils with SEND as efficiently as possible. A partnership with Mastodon C helps an LA to achieve this through harnessing our expertise and providing access to cutting edge data science.


[1] “National pupil projections –future trends in pupil numbers: July2018” DfE, July 2018:

[2] “2018 Annual Report on Education Spending in England.” IFS, Sept 2018:

[3]  “Breaking Point: a snapshot in the continuing crisis in school and academy funding.” NAHT, Mar 2018:

[4] “Inequalities in the experience of early education in England: Access, peer groups and transitions.” London School of Economics June 2019:

[5] “Unexplained pupil exits from schools: a growing problem?” Education Policy Institute, April 2019:

[6] “Turning the Tide” Report by National Children’s Bureau and the Children’s Society, 2017:

[7] “Special educational needs in England: January 2018” DfE, July 2018:

[8] “Statements of SEN and EHC plans: England 2019.” DfE, May 2019:

[9] “Where have the pupils in mainstream schools with education, health and care plans gone?” FFT Education Datalab Feb 2019:

[10] “Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England” National Audit Office, September 2019:

[11] “Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions.” Education Select Committee, July 2018:

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