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SEN Funding: Examining the Impact of Postcode on Provision

By Rob Burnett

In 2023 the government announced another increase in the number of students  issued an Education, Health & Care Plan. 66,706 new plans were issued in 2022 –  an increase of 7% from 2021. The percentage of students with plans is steadily rising too. Over the last 8 years, the percentage of pupils with EHCPs has gone from 2.8% to 4.3% so our students are supported better now than ever, right? Well, often this can come down to their postcode.

As part of a Trust that spans several different local authorities and councils, it’s quite clear how different things can be for similar children based on where they live. SEN and EHCP funding is always going to be a hot topic, with no one having the right answer. Realistically, who could? The right answer is going to be different based on our own settings.  As calls increase for a national stance though, how different are things for our children? 

One huge positive from Wellspring’s SENCo Network is the opportunity to discuss and talk with SENCos from around the Trust about issues we’re all facing, sharing practice and comparing how we might approach similar issues. Currently, in 2024, one of the main concerns is funding (or lack of!) and when we dig into the concerns, one thing that always stands out is how differently each local authority supports our students with high-level needs. 

Most local authorities offer an amount of ‘top-up’ funding to schools to support students with Education, Health & Care Plans. It is normally up to the school how this funding is spent and most local authorities organise this in a ‘banding’ system – where the higher needs students claim a higher banding and therefore further finances. 

Just a quick Google search will allow you to see the differences in these amounts. Some authorities are quite vast in what they can or will offer. One local authority suggests students in receipt of their highest banding would receive £40,000 in top-up funding, whilst another offers only up to £7,999 – a very large difference, which ultimately impacts the quality of provision for the student. 

The issue isn’t just in the banding amount, however. Local authorities will also determine the banding or level of funding, often based on often very different pre-determined criteria. This again means a great deal of difference in the banding levels and therefore the funding that children receive. Some local authorities will even go one step further and request schools ‘price’ how much it would cost them to support a student and fund them based on this estimation.

This large level of difference becomes more apparent when students and families move between two different areas. It means that sometimes support cannot continue as the new local authority won’t offer the same levels of ‘top-up’ funding as the previous one. 

We all know that every student is different, but in the current ‘multi-local authority’ approach, two similar students with almost identical Educational, Health & Care Plans living in two different areas could receive vastly different levels of funding and provision. 

So what is the answer?

A national outlook?

One possible solution to this issue, which has been requested by many for a long time, is to have a national approach rather than allow local authorities to set their own rules. 2022’s SEN & AP Green Paper – “SEND Review: right support, right place, right time” suggests that possible solutions to these issues could be a national approach which centralises the EHCP process to ‘minimise bureaucracy and deliver consistency’. This solution would also end the current system of different ‘versions’ of the Education, Health & Care Plans, with each Local Authority having their own pro-forma document and each one being different. Whilst this would certainly tighten up the processes involved in funding high-level needs students, it would be difficult for some smaller authorities to ‘step up’ to the funding amounts of some other larger authorities. It would certainly be a move in the right direction though to increase consistency. 

Start again?

No one can argue that Education, Health & Care Plans are required. Since coming into existence nearly a decade ago, the amount of students with plans has massively increased. Perhaps though this has been at a greater rate than anyone could predict. Allowing authorities the freedom to support their own students in the way they best see fit is an advantage, but could replacing the entire system with a centralised one, or a whole new format be the best thing now? Or would a ‘tear it up and start again’ approach cause too many issues? 

The answer isn’t clear. What certainly would benefit all of our young people would be any move to bring support, provision and financing ‘in line’. A student shouldn’t face any kind of advantage or disadvantage based on their geographical location or the rulings made by their local authority. Currently, whilst all authorities use their own rulings, they do sit within the law on supporting students with plans, yet there is still far too much difference in what is offered to young people.