SEND: the next big Conservative crisis

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Dozens of UK councils face bankruptcy in 2026. In response, the government is forcing them to slash their Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) budgets. This will needlessly put at risk thousands of SEND children.

The plan won’t work. But there’s a simple way out.

How did this crisis arise? Since 2010, local authorities have faced two huge pressures. First, the core funding from the UK government to councils is about half the level provided before austerity began in 2010. That noose was tightened by the effects of Covid and inflation.

Secondly, in 2014 the Children and Families Act introduced the Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), and set a new statutory duty of care on councils. The EHCP is a safety net for over 500,000 young people in the UK. It’s a legal document which sets out a child’s SEND status, and the services needed to support them. It’s a long process (the statutory target is 20 weeks from submission to approval), but if awarded, an EHCP can secure and protect a child’s access to education.

What does an EHCP cover? A child could be living with physical disabilities, learning difficulties or other defined conditions. The EHCP sets out what the child needs to access learning, whether that’s getting to the school or coping in the classroom. It implicitly acknowledges that without this tool, the child is unlikely to have the same chances within education as their peers. Quite simply, the EHCP is true levelling-up in action.

EHCPs are vital, but there’s a problem. The provision is under-funded, and always has been. SEND services are overwhelming council budgets, with about a dozen already facing an ‘existential risk’. But by law, a local authority must balance its books every year, or declare insolvency. This has put councils in an impossible position.

So, for the last few years, the UK government has allowed councils to ringfence their SEND deficits using a statutory override. These overspends are rising every year, but for the moment aren’t counted in the annual budgets. This is creating an accumulated deficit in virtually every UK council, which is temporarily quarantined. It’s estimated that the total SEND deficit is £2.3bn.

But this override expires in 2026. At that point most councils will face bankruptcy.

To address this timebomb, government introduced two schemes: Safety Valve and Delivering Better Value. But the aim isn’t to improve funding. It’s to cut SEND services. Specifically, to slash the number of kids supported by EHCPs. I wrote about this back in March.

So far, 34 councils have signed Safety Valve contracts with the government. These offer a small top-up in school funding, if the council reduces its SEND spending. At least 55 other councils are in Delivering Better Value. This is similar to Safety Valve, but without the funding. The stated aim of both schemes is to reduce SEND spend, by reducing EHCPs and keeping more SEND children in mainstream schools.

But these targets are not based on need, but quota. With need no longer the primary consideration, it’s inevitable that many children will lose crucial support. This would reduce their access to education and learning: the very opposite of the purpose set out in the Children and Families Act.

In summary:

The government sets new legal duties of care for councils. But it underfunds the services, causing huge local overspending. Then it pays councils to overlook those statutory duties and artificially reduce their services, putting thousands of kids at risk. And it threatens them with bankruptcy if they don’t comply.

The scale of the issue was set out recently in an intriguing letter from BCP Council’s Chief Executive Graham Farrant, to Levelling-Up minister Michael Gove. Farrant’s letter lay bare the difficulties facing his council, and the seeming impossibility of balancing its books. BCP is in the Govt’s Delivering Better Value scheme, but remains on the brink. With a forecast deficit of £160m in 2026, it will surely declare bankruptcy. And dozens of others will follow.

But there’s an obvious way out of this crisis. And it isn’t Safety Valve.

Firstly, the government can announce an extension of the deficit override, of at least three years. Because Safety Valve and Delivering Better Value cannot eliminate council deficits. All they can do is reduce resources for our most vulnerable children.

That announcement should be made now. Because as you read this, councils across the UK are being pushed to slash their SEND services. This has been happening ever since the two schemes were introduced.

The time limit for EHCPs was missed in 40 per cent of cases in 2021, but rose to 51 per cent last year. And stories abound of dependent SEND children losing their EHCPs and the critical support which it safeguards.

Secondly, the government could provide the same emergency funding, but without threat of bankruptcy. This will allow councils to deliver service reviews without being forced to artificially reduce essential care. And it will relieve them of a major distraction at a critical time.

Because even without the SEND crisis, councils are on the brink. The economic crisis could still see dozens fall. Let councils focus on surviving the next two years.

So, will the government do the right thing? This isn’t a group known for compassion. And there’s a concern that the reduction of SEND services was the aim all along: an extension of austerity in a previously-protected service. Perhaps the Conservatives also see this crisis as being Labour’s to solve.

But every day this policy remains, children are being cut adrift. SEND is about lifelines. And those are under threat every day this policy needlessly remains. The Safety Valve plan is a cruel deception, and leaves thousands of vulnerable kids at risk.

It’s time for councils and stakeholder groups to turn the pressure back onto government, asking it to extend the statutory override. Before it’s too late.

A version of this article was first published on Twitter by @AdamHighcliffe