Research and evaluation

Research into the pressures on SEND and high needs budgets

“Have we reached a “tipping point”? Trends in spending for children and young people with SEND in England provided a powerful and concise picture of the high needs budgetary and demand pressures facing member councils.”
— Councillor Anntionette Bramble, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board


The brief

There has been significant focus on support for young people with high needs recently. This has been prompted by the reforms of the framework for supporting young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND), rising rates of exclusions and placements in alternative provision (AP), and rising pressure on resources for young people with additional and high needs. In our work with individual local areas, we had noticed a common set of challenges, often related to the national policy framework as much as local circumstances, with a range of promising initiatives developed to address these but with few opportunities to share these ideas and spread these practices across the country. As a result, we were commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA) to undertake two parallel research projects. The first aimed to identify the nature and causes of the pressures on local high needs spending, and to explore what might be needed to address these challenges at national level, while the second sought to capture the practical actions that local areas could take to mitigate these challenges and sustain an effective local SEND system within this challenging context.

What did we do?

The first strand of the research sought to quantity and evidence the pressures local areas were facing on their high needs resources. Specifically, the research sought to quantify the gap between what was allocated (through the high needs block of the dedicated schools grant) and what was actually being spent (and where these additional resources were being taken from), as well as the factors driving these pressures and the actions needed to reverse them. We approached the work by:

  • carrying out in-depth analysis of published data on high needs budgets and spending;

  • designing an online survey to capture up-to-date information about trends in spending in a comparable and analysable form, which was completed by 93 councils; and

  • undertaking in-depth fieldwork visits to explore trends, pressures and actions taken to address them with a representative sample of nine councils across England.

The second strand of the research sought to draw together the examples of effective and promising practice that councils and their partners had developed to mitigate these pressures and sustain effective local SEND systems. We sought to develop our findings through formative and iterative engagements with a range of colleagues involved in local SEND systems. Specifically we undertook the following activities:

  • a series of workshops with council officers and elected members with strategic responsibility for SEND, national policy-makers, and partners, including parent / carer and voluntary sector organisations;

  • developing an initial series of key messages and short case studies; and

  • a further round of regional workshops that were designed to share, test, refine and add to our practical messages and case studies, drawing on the examples and work of councils and partners across the country.

What difference did we make?

We presented the key findings from both research projects at the National Children’s and Adult Services Conference in Manchester in November 2018, where our work was referred to in the keynote speech given by the Minister for Children’s and Families. Shortly afterwards, the LGA published in parallel our two research reports. The first, Developing and sustaining an effective local SEND system: A practical guide for councils and partners, sets out a series of key practical actions that councils and partners can take to strengthen and sustain an effective, joined-up, partnership-based strategic approach to supporting young people with SEND in their local area. This is set out under six themes, which cover the full range of young people’s ages, services, and partnerships within a local SEND system.

The second, Have we reached a “tipping-point”? Trends in spending for children and young people with SEND in England, identifies the current and potential gap between what is being spent on high needs, the factors that are contributing to the pressures local areas on high needs resources that local areas are experiencing, and what is needed at national level to alleviate these pressures.

Since publication, we have also presented findings from both projects at a series of regional and national events and conferences for senior council officers and elected members, and national policy-makers. This research has been used heavily in debates about the future of SEND and high needs funding, as has been cited as evidence in Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

Taken together, these two research projects provide clear evidence of the nature and causes of pressures on high needs resources, a clear set of actions needed at national level to address and reverse these pressures, as well as a set of practical actions that local leaders can use to inform day-to-day and strategic work within their own local areas. Shortly after the publication of our research, in December 2018, the Government announced that it would invest an additional £250m into high needs funding over 2019-20 and 2020-21 (£125 over each of the two years).

What did the client say about the work?

‘‘Councils are telling that the LGA that dealing with rising demand for SEND support and associated budget pressures are one of the biggest challenges that they are facing. It was therefore vital that we commissioned research that provided a strong evidence base to inform our lobbying work with Government.

“We know that there are many examples of effective practise in delivering SEND support and the ‘Developing and sustaining an effective local SEND system’ report sought to draw these together to form practical messages that could be used by all councils and their partners.

“Given the funding pressures facing councils, it was vital that we looked at the funding “gap” facing councils, to compliment work looking at how to make the SEND support system work as effectively as possible. Have we reached a “tipping point”? Trends in spending for children and young people with SEND in England provided a powerful and concise picture of the high needs budgetary and demand pressures facing member councils.

“Shortly after the report was published the Department for Education announced that an additional £350 million was being made available to councils to provide SEND support. While this is welcome, the findings of the report show that much more is needed and we will use this evidence to influence civil servants and ministers ahead of the next Spending Review.’’
— Councillor Anntionette Bramble, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board