SEND tribunal costs reflect a broken system, says school leaders’ union

A new report has shown that English councils wasted £60 million in a year on unsuccessful court disputes with parents and carers seeking support for children and young people with special education needs and disabilities (SEND).

The report by Pro Bono Economics (PBE), commissioned by the Disabled Children’s Partnership, revealed more than 11, 000 SEND tribunals – contesting decisions by local authorities – were registered in England in 2021-22.

This was an increase of 29% on the previous year.

These tribunals were brought by parents, carers and young people disputing council decisions about an education, health and care plan (EHCP) for a child or young person, a legal document issued by a local authority which identifies a child’s educational, health and social needs and sets out the support that will be provided to meet those needs.

PBE’s research showed that local authorities in England lost 96% of SEND tribunal hearings in 2021-22, at a cost of nearly £60m to the public purse. 

The company said the current system is also putting a significant strain on children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, as well as their parents and carers, while they battle for support.

For children and young people, the wait for support can lead to problems such as developmental delay, deteriorating mental and physical health, and poor academic performance. Meanwhile, families can incur significant financial costs from taking disputes to tribunal and, for some, the process is so time-consuming it impacts their ability to work.

The Disabled Children’s Partnership, a coalition of over 110 organisations that campaign for improved health and social care for disabled children, young people and their families, has made a number of recommendations aimed at improving the EHCP process, including a call for government to ringfence resources for early information, advice and support for young people and parents navigating the system.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, commented on the report, saying: “What we are seeing here is the manifestation of a broken system. 

“School staff, governors and parents can see the underlying issue is that the system for supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is too often skewed so it is based upon the resources available rather than pupils’ needs. Councils simply do not have the resources to meet the growing demand they are facing.

“While the government’s new SEND plan contained some sensible ideas, it did not address this funding gap, which leaves both schools and local authorities struggling to offer the support children need amid growing demand, despite the best efforts of staff.

“We’ve heard of schools who have had to go into deficit to provide the right help for children. Schools are also hamstrung by a shortage of specialist staff, as well as funding, while there is a national shortage of special school places.

“Unless the government backs up its proposals with significant new investment in the SEND system, pupils will continue to miss out on the care and support they need to flourish.”

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