SEND students
Many SEND students in England are not getting the support they need. Source: Shutterstock

The National Audit Office (NAO) has raised the alarm over the lack of support faced by special educational needs and disability (SEND) students in England. 

The report, published yesterday (September 11), said some SEND students receive high quality support that meets their needs, regardless of whether they attend mainstream or special schools, but many others are not being supported effectively.

SEND students who do not have Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans are particularly exposed, claims the NAO.

As of January this year, 1.3 million pupils in England were recorded as being SEND. Source: Shutterstock

Budget-busting spending

Based on current trends, they argue that the system for supporting students is not financially sustainable, with local authorities increasingly overspending their budgets for supporting students with special needs.

This is partly driven by a rise in the number of pupils attending special rather than mainstream schools. 

“In 2017-18, 122 local authorities (81.3 percent) overspent their school’s high-needs budgets, including 84 that overspent by 5 percent or more. 

“The position had worsened since 2013-14, when 71 local authorities (47.3 percent) overspent, including 46 that overspent by 5 percent or more. In 2017-18, the net overspend across all local authorities was £282 million; this compared with a net underspend of £63 million in 2013-14.”

Overspending was also recorded for SEND students’ school transport. It was £102 million (18.4 percent) over budget in 2017-18. 

Local authorities have primarily covered overspends against their high-needs budgets by using reserves accumulated from underspending on the dedicated schools grant in previous years.

The NAO report also said pressures, such as incentives for mainstream schools to be less inclusive, have increased demand for special school places, while the growing use of independent schools and reductions in per-pupil funding are making the system less sustainable. 

They note that there are two broad categories of support for SEND students:

  • 270,800 pupils with complex needs (20.6 percent of all pupils with SEND) had legally enforceable entitlements to specific packages of support, set out in EHC plans
  • 1,041,500 pupils (79.4 percent of all pupils with SEND) did not have EHC plans but had been identified by their schools as needing additional support (‘SEN support’)

NAO reported that SEND students, especially those without EHC plans, are more likely to be permanently excluded from school than pupils without SEND. 

“In 2017/18, children with SEND accounted for 44.9 percent of permanent exclusions and 43.4 percent of fixed-period exclusions. Survey evidence in 2019 also suggests that pupils with SEND are more likely to experience off-rolling than other pupils,” it said.

“‘Off-rolling’ is the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil.”


NEO’s report concludes with several recommendations. These include:

  • For the Department for Education (DfE) to assess how much it would cost to provide the system for supporting pupils with SEND created by the 2014 reforms. This assessment can be used to determine whether the system is affordable.
  • For the DfE to set quantified goals, for 2020-21 onwards, that prepare pupils for their adult lives.
  • For the DfE to identify and share good practice on how mainstream schools can effectively meet the needs of those pupils with SEND who do not have EHC plans.

Liked this? Then you’ll love…

Should SEN children be enrolled in mainstream schools?

3 assistive technologies tailored to the needs of SEN students