Opinion: The fight for funding, are children with special educational needs being “failed by society”?

News Page 19th November 2018

Nicola Preston, Senior Lecturer in Education (SEN and Inclusion) shares her thoughts on the way funding for children with SEN has changed in recent years, and the challenges this creates for schools and families hoping to give these children the best possible outcomes.

In recent weeks there has been a strong media focus on special educational needs and learning disabilities emphasising how many individuals are being “failed by society”. The Observer (Sat 10/11/18) reports that the devastating cuts that hit special educational needs are linked to “a crisis in funding” that is affecting many councils and Local Authorities. For those of us involved in education and specifically special educational needs (SEN), this is nothing new and certainly for many families of children with SEN, this reporting will probably have caused further upset and frustration. As an associated Observer article highlights, families have found it hard to watch their child struggle and to have to ‘fight’ for funding, for many years. Although, as these parents state, these difficulties have existed for some years, many will say that the introduction of Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans in 2014 and the associated changes in the Children and Families Act and the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice (DoH & DfE, 2014) have made things more difficult for schools and families to access the funding. Since their introduction, there has been a sharp increase in the number of children refused requests for assessment for an EHC Plan with a 35% increase in refused requests between 2015 and 2016.

The University of Northampton has been a provider of the National Award in Special Educational Needs Co-ordination since its introduction in 2009 as a mandatory requirement for all school Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCos). We have been working with teaching staff across 10 UK Local Authority areas (as well as internationally in Thailand and India) to help staff understand and fulfil the obligations set out in the SEN Code of Practice. I have heard many stories of how schools are managing the processes of identifying and meeting the needs of all children in education and also many of the practical challenges of translating legislation and policy into practice.

The SEN Code of Practice was first introduced in 2004 and in 2014 as a result of new legislation in the Children and Families Act, the statutory obligations relating to the new Code were jointly published by the Departments of Health and Education promoting joint working between Local Authorities and their local Health Care partners to plan and commission services for children and young people in the 0-25 age range. The then Parliamentary Under – Secretaries of State for both Health and Children and Families stated in the Foreword of this statutory guidance that, the new arrangements for children and young people would mean that “their experiences will be of a system which is less confrontational and more efficient. Their special educational needs and disabilities will be picked up at the earliest point with support routinely put in place quickly, and their parents will know what services they can reasonably expect to be provided.”

The reality has not been quite so encouraging with multi-million-pound cuts in funding for SEND services. Council overspending on children’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has trebled in just three years and is continuing to increase, with councils taking hundreds of millions from their overall budget for schools to cope and now as we know only too well in Northamptonshire, facing bankruptcy and having to make even more drastic cuts.


In early October 2018, over 200 Headteachers in Northampton, the Vice Chancellor and Deans and Deputy Deans at the University of Northampton wrote an open letter to Northamptonshire County Council voicing their concerns about the impact of the cuts. As stated in the letter, “It is clear that there is an acute need to reduce expenditure within Northamptonshire. However, this cannot be made in a reckless manner: preventing the effective delivery of education in our county and putting the safety and wellbeing of children and young people at risk”.  The concerns have led to educators across the County coming together to host the inaugural #EducatingNorthants conference which will take place on Saturday 30 March 2019 at the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus. The aim is for hundreds of teachers from across the county to come together to take part in world class professional learning and development, and address the challenges for education and young people in an optimistic, solutions focused way.  We want to highlight positive approaches to improving outcomes for the young people, especially here in Northamptonshire where we can use the University, both staff and students as a force for good. This collaborative approach enables practitioners to identify need much earlier in a child’s life and focuses on effective multi-agency approaches to meet these needs; rather than spending money on costly tribunals, late unvalidated assessment processes and juvenile justice systems which reactively respond to the legislation, and leave a devastating and long term emotional trail behind them.

Prior to becoming a senior lecturer in SEN and Inclusion at the University of Northampton, I was a police officer, teacher and SENCo. These experiences gave me a very real insight into the inequalities experienced by many young people who, disproportionally, often ended up in the criminal justice system. I also had very real experiences myself relating to the implementation of policy and legislation into practice. Many of these challenges related to the lack of resources available for early intervention and prevention work.

I was a police officer in 1996 when restorative justice was introduced to the UK and a member of the Thames Valley Police Restorative Justice Consultancy that introduced the restorative and relational principles into the cautioning process where we were dealing with first time offenders who were often young people. My anecdotal (at that time) observations were that many of these young people had SEN and had not had positive experiences in the education system, many of them having been excluded from school or in pupil referral units for challenging behaviour. Restorative justice was an opportunity to gain a shared understanding of the harm caused by their offending behaviour with the people who had been harmed which included families and people who cared about them as well as the direct ‘victims’ of their crime.

The restorative justice cautioning initiative was independently evaluated by the Oxford Centre for Criminological Research and the positive results led to the introduction of the Youth Justice Board and Youth Offending Teams linked to partnership working to prevent re-offending. I left Thames Valley Police in 1999 to work for the International Institute for Restorative Practices and have been a trainer, facilitator and adjunct faculty for them ever since. I have used the restorative framework in a whole range of contexts and I am currently applying the framework in my PhD studies to help understand the challenging behaviours associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the school setting

Prof Sir Michael Marmot from the Institute of Health Equity at University College London, a leading health inequality expert has written a report that highlights the fact that 40% of people with learning difficulties were not diagnosed in childhood and although only 2.9% of the general population have learning disabilities, a quarter of young people in custody have learning disabilities. This is supported by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists who show research that identifies 66-90% of young offenders have low language skills and that often these were not identified until they were in custody. Two-thirds of 7-14 year olds with communication difficulties have additional behaviour problems and young people with Speech Language and Communication Needs rarely indicated that they had not understood or needed help with a learning task, instead, they gave up.

Pupils with identified special educational needs account for almost half of all permanent and fixed period exclusions and are up to seven times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than pupils with no SEN even though they only make up 14% of the school population. My experiences as a police officer working with juvenile offenders directly influenced my decision to become a primary school teacher and SENCo and continues to drive my goal to start as early as possible to identify need in young people and improve their chances for positive outcomes in the education system. My PhD research aims to develop my anecdotal experiences into a more theoretical understanding of how relational aspects of the restorative practices framework can provide a more structured model for early intervention of need in the school setting.

Nicola Preston

Senior Lecturer Special Educational Needs and Inclusion

University of Northampton, UK

Adjunct Faculty – International Institute for Restorative Practices Graduate School, USA

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