Julia Maunder, head of Thomas Keble secondary school, in the pretty hilltop village of Eastcombe, Gloucestershire, has worked hard to make the school inclusive. In the top 30% nationally for student progress and attainment, it has built up a reputation for its expertise with special educational needs (SEN). Local parents whose children need support to access mainstream education seek it out.
But Maunder has taken a step she could never have imagined: she has announced she will be cutting her intake of children with education, health and care plans (EHCPs, which replaced statements of special needs in 2014) from 35 children to between 25 and 22, over the next four years.
The “heartbreaking” decision, she says, on the verge of tears, has been taken as a last resort, to “preserve the quality of our SEN provision, and our overall outcomes”.
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Thomas Keble has refused places for September to four children with EHCPs. Maunder is “devastated” – she and her team are “110% committed” to inclusion, she says, “but we have seen policies brought in and funding decisions that have compromised that.”
Nationally, the average proportion of children with EHCPs in a school is 1.6%, but Thomas Keble has nearly four times that – 6% – the highest proportion in the county. To offer adequate support, Maunder says, she has to take fewer EHCP children.
Maunder is not the only head to face this painful dilemma. The MP Jess Phillips recently revealed that her son’s school in Birmingham will limit its intake of children with special needs. “Disabled people are being cleansed from our schools by cuts,” Phillips wrote.
Schools must meet the first £6,000 of the cost of supporting a child with special educational needs – put bluntly, pupils who need specialist help typically cost more than they bring in.
Maunder believes her decision is within the law: she is relying on the requirement in section 9.79 of the special educational needs and disability code of practice for schools [pdf] to deliver “efficient” education for their whole intake.
However, Anne-Marie Irwin, a solicitor who specialises in representing children with SEN, believes this “efficiency” of education “is solely an issue for the local authority to consider, when it decides whether or not to name a school on a plan”. Under section 43 of the Children and Families Act, [pdf] “when a school – including academies – is named in the EHCP plan, the governing body must admit that pupil”.
Irwin is preparing to seek a strategic judicial review against the government for alleged underfunding of special needs education in England.
Headteachers are making difficult decisions that can bring them into conflict with parents. Some schools compromise on the kind of support they provide; others encourage parents to educate their children at home instead.
In Gloucestershire, 20 children with EHCPs were taken out of school to be home-educated in 2017 and another 20 in 2018. The council has begun counting how many other children receiving school SEN support have been withdrawn to be educated at home: in 2018 it was 106.
Josephine Smith-Mands’ son is one of them. “My husband and I were tired of a broken system and refused to let our son become a broken child,” she says. She withdrew the boy after his school, Berkeley primary, did not offer support recommended by his hospital consultant, she says. The Guardian has seen an email from the doctor to the local authority saying that the approach being adopted to support the child was not going to meet his needs.
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Cotswold Beacon Academy Trust, of which Berkeley primary is a member, said it could “not engage in dialogue regarding specific issues or allegations about current or former pupils”. It said Berkeley “is a highly successful school which provides a caring and stimulating learning environment for all children in its care and that at all times has qualified personnel to ensure that children are safe and looked after”.
Another Gloucestershire parent, Emily Garner (not her real name), says she was pressured for months, by a different school, to home educate her year 5 daughter, which she resisted. “Their take on it was that the local authority had suggested this,” she says. “I didn’t agree, because I think children get a lot of things in school that they don’t get at home.”
Recently, though, Garner’s daughter was permanently excluded on grounds of her behaviour and now has no school place. “They talk about other staff and pupils being vulnerable, but she is vulnerable, too,” Garner says.
Meanwhile, Irwin says legal responsibility for the crisis in services lies at the government’s door, not with schools or local authorities. She has six files bulging with evidence she’ll be laying before the high court, in a claim being brought by three different families in England against both the education secretary and the chancellor.
“The evidence is now overwhelming that there isn’t enough money in the system to meet children’s needs,” she says. “We’re saying it’s not just how the Department for Education divides up its money, but whether the Treasury has allocated enough.”
If the parents win, Irwin says it will be “hugely significant”. The government will have to reconsider its spending on SEN and then decide whether to pay up.
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In Gloucestershire, four of the county’s six MPs recently accepted an invitation by GovMeet, a Gloucestershire association of governors, to meet parents of children with SEN to hear of the trials they face. Stroud MP David Drew subsequently asked the prime minister to consider changing the system of SEN funding.
“Schools have to find that first £6,000 upfront – it’s a perverse incentive which pays schools not to recognise children’s disabilities, and you’re then putting that child at a disadvantage because they’re not getting the help they need,” Drew says. He says the “additional needs” budget given to local authorities should be fully ringfenced.
Last week the DfE issued a call for evidence on SEN funding. But a spokesperson says: “We have increased spending on high needs from £5bn in 2013 to £6.3bn this year. We recognise the challenges facing local authorities and in December provided an extra £250m up to 2020 to help them manage high needs cost pressures. We have also provided councils with an extra £100m to create more SEND places.”
Charlotte Jones, Gloucestershire council’s head of services for children with special needs, says: “We are working closely with schools to address the challenges on high needs and have set out a clear strategic direction. This is a national problem and the government will need to provide additional funding for 2020/21 onwards.”