Stop School Budget Cuts

Education budgets, consultation and the public sector equality duty

I came across this article in TES recently which reported that a group of parents in Surrey had been unsuccessful in their challenge to cuts made to the Special Educational Needs (SEN) budget of their local authority. The challenge was brought by the parents of 5 children who claimed that the SEN budget for 2018-2019 cut spending by £21 million and was unlawful due to a lack of consultation.  This type of challenge – by way of Judicial Review –is not an isolated one, although it is much less common north of the border. And, despite the outcome in this case, can be successful.

Indeed, the case of KE & Ors, R (On the application of) v Bristol City Council [2018] EWHC 2103 (Admin) – raised earlier in 2018 – was successful in quashing the budget decision and sending it back to the Council for reconsideration. The focus of the case was slightly narrower – the parents challenged the Council’s decision to set a school’s budget as it included a reduction in expenditure of £5 million pounds in the “high needs” block budget. This is the budget used for special needs provision.
The grounds for review in that case were multiple, but of particular interest is the challenge made with reference to the Equality Act 2010. More specifically, that the decision breached the public sector equality duty (PSED) which contains a duty to acquire further information – including through consultation.

For its part, the Council argued that the Judicial Review was premature as no decision had been taken on provision proposals which were to be developed within the funding envelope.  The Judge, however, held that the decision was indeed one that could be challenged. The cut was to funding in a very specific area within the Local Authority’s education budget. It was sufficiently focused even at this stage.

Having concluded that the challenge was a relevant one he went on to hold that there had been a failure to consult in terms of the PSED. Further, the Court noted that ‘participation in public life embraces participation in a mainstream educational environment and such participation for children with disabilities is disproportionately low’. Factors such as levels of exclusions and the high numbers of children in special schools were factors that cried out for consideration by the Local Authority and had not been.

Surrey County Council used the same defence as put forward by Bristol City Council. The parents were, however, challenging proposed cuts made across the authority and not to a particular school – or provision. In rejecting their claim, Lady Justice Sharp said that the evidence in the case showed that the decision being challenged was not, in fact, a ‘cut’ to the budget. Rather the authority had identified a potential for future savings: “The Council could not know what the impact of the cuts might be in those areas, or consult on them, because at the time the decision under challenge was taken, no cuts have been decided upon or worked out.”

With the Public Sector Equality Duty applying to local authorities in Scotland too, local government across the UK should take note. These cases confirm that the PSED applies to budget decisions and embraces participation in a mainstream environment.

Information gathering and consultation during the budget setting process goes some way to assist that and is a requirement on decision-makers to ensure that mainstreaming is happening. The Bristol case makes mention of statistics relating to the high numbers of children in special schools in the local authority area, and the numbers of exclusions. A properly conducted Equality Impact Assessment may also be of relevance.

By actively considering how successfully inclusion is working within a local authority area, and what needs to be done if it is not, budget decisions will better reflect and focus on children with additional support needs and disabilities. It may be some time before we see similar cases in Scotland (and funding of such cases is always a thorny issue) but the reminder of the application of the public sector equality duty to changes in the additional support or education budget is certainly timely.

Photo Credit: John Stavely at https://www.flickr.com/photos/8759111@N02/3320291932

Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

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Motion on mainstreaming

On Wednesday 30th January 2019, the Scottish Parliament agreed the following motion (S5M-15607):

That the Parliament notes the comments made by the OECD that inclusion is one of the key strengths of the Scottish education system; believes that the presumption to mainstream pupils has laudable intentions and that it works well for the majority of young people in Scotland’s schools; recognises however the very considerable concern that has been expressed by many teachers, teaching assistants, children’s charities and parents’ groups that a growing number of young people with special educational needs are not being well served by being placed in inclusive mainstream education; believes that this is putting additional pressures on teachers and young people in classrooms across Scotland, making it more difficult to support the individual needs of each child; in light of the recent evidence presented to Parliament, calls on the Scottish Government to work with local government partners to review the presumption to mainstream policy to ensure there can be more effective uptake of the provision of places in special schools and specialist units and utilisation of specialist staff, and, agrees that this review should be founded on a continuing commitment to a presumption to mainstream and on the need to ensure that children and young people’s additional support needs are met, to enable them to reach their full potential, from within whichever learning provision best suits their learning needs, and notes the forthcoming publication of revised guidance, tools and advice for school staff, and national research, on the experiences of children and young people with additional support needs.

The motion was brought by Liz Smith MSP (Conservative) with the section from “and agrees that this review..” to the end, being added by an amendment brought by John Swinney MSP (SNP), the Cabinet Secretary for Education.

It is significant that the motion carried cross-party support, with very little disagreement except on minor points of emphasis.  While the motion itself speaks about a review of the presumption of mainstreaming, the Cabinet Secretary seemed to go further than that, referencing “a review of the implementation of additional support for learning, including where children learn”.

It is worth mentioning the solid work that the Education and Skills Committee have put into grappling with this question over a significant period. In addition, several voluntary organisations have worked effectively to keep the issue in the spotlight.

I have some slight concerns as to the length of time that a review might take, as it is not clear what form this is going to take, or over what timescale.

Indeed, as Mark McDonald MSP pointed out during the debate, the last call for a review into the presumption of mainstreaming was some three years ago.  That review has not yet concluded!  Draft revised guidance on the presumption of mainstreaming was out for consultation about a year ago.  (You can read my response to the consultation on the presumption of mainstreaming guidance here.)  The Scottish Government website still claims that updated guidance “will be published towards the end of 2018”.

It is to be hoped that the substantial work which has already been undertaken here means that the review process will not be a lengthy one.

As the motion is keen to point out, there is no intention here to depart from the principle of the presumption of mainstreaming, rather to consider how it is being implemented in practice.  In my view this is the correct approach.  It has always been accepted that mainstreaming would be more expensive than a system of special schools (cf. “Moving to Mainstream” report by Audit Scotland, 2003) – but it has been adopted as a principle because it is the right thing to do.  The policy must be properly resourced as a matter of urgency.  It is not a quick fix, but a long-term commitment which is required.  The resources must also be spent on the right things. For example, simply throwing Pupil Support Assistants at the problem will not help, and may make things worse.

The motion also mentions the “more effective uptake of the provision of places in special schools and specialist units”.  The Doran Review was commissioned by the Scottish Government and published in November 2012.  In the six years which have passed since then little progress has been made in terms of the recommendations it made certainly insofar as they related to Scotland’s grant-aided special schools.  A draft ten year strategy on the learning provision for children and young people with complex additional support needs was published in June 2017.  My response to that consultation can be found here.  The strategy has not yet been finalised, much less implemented (and it was supposed to cover the period 2017-2026).  Meanwhile, the Scottish Government are paying millions of pounds a year to the grant-aided special schools, some of which are woefully under capacity, catering to just a handful of children.  These national resources should be fully funded by Scottish Government and able to select their own pupils, just like the only mainstream grant-aided school is (Jordanhill School).  This would mean that pupils would be accepted to these schools on the basis of need, rather than by who manages to negotiate the local authority / Tribunal system the best – a process that inevitably benefits children of more affluent parents.  There should also be much more emphasis on outreach services to mainstream schools from these national centres of excellence, but this does not currently happen to any great extent.  I advanced these arguments in my consultation response, but I am not holding my breath.

We also need to be careful that the review is not hijacked by those who oppose the principle of mainstreaming altogether.  Some of the language used in the Scotsman coverage for example, is less than helpful – “extra burden on overstretched teachers”; “some ASN pupils could be disruptive”; “a daily struggle to control classes”.

Overall, the review offers an opportunity to press for a system which delivers the right support in the right place at the right time for pupils with additional support needs – we should take it, with enthusiasm and energy.