Special Needs Fees Are £57,000 A Child

The costs of educating children with special needs privately risk spiralling out of control, with little indication of whether the money spent represents good value, research from the Audit Commission suggests.

Each year councils in England and Wales pay for about 11,000 children with special educational needs (SEN) to be educated in private or charit- able residential schools because there is no suitable local state provision. But fees have risen by 79 per cent in six years, a survey of the local authorities has found.

The Audit Commission’s research shows that residential school costs are running at more than £500 million a year, or an average of £57,000 a child — more than double the cost of a place at any of Britain’s leading public schools. Costs typically range from £30,000 a year for children attending during term time to £150,000 for children placed for the full 52 weeks. In 2003 the average figure was £42,000 and in 2000 it was £32,000.

Jan Hunter, author of the report, said that the authorities’ overspending was “a big area for concern”.

The commission’s findings will add to pressure on the Government to reform SEN provision. Although council spending on it increased from £2.8 billion to £4.5 billion this year, critics argue that the money does not always reach where it is most needed.

The report comes three weeks after the decision by Ruth Kelly, the former Education Secretary, to move her nine-year-old son, who is believed to have dyslexia, to a private boarding school that specialises in teaching children with the condition.

The Audit Commission report, due to be published next month, found wide differences in the amount councils spent and in how they monitored costs. Ms Hunter said: “Some local authorities visited the children regularly, some never. How do they know they are getting good value for money if they are not measuring the outcomes for the children?” She said that some cost increases could be attributed to tighter regulations for residential schools or to their having to accept children with increasingly severe disabilities.

However, anecdotal evidence suggested that some schools might be unduly inflating their fees and some local authorities “sensed” that they were being overcharged. But prices were difficult to challenge, as schools rarely provided a breakdown of what their costs covered.

Ms Hunter also found that local authorities had not “sat down and worked out what they were spending” and there was sometimes poor liaison between education departments and social care and health departments. “Children with high needs will tend to be seen by all three services. There was surprisingly little sharing of information,” she said.

The report will call for more co-operation within local authorities, better local strategic planning and increased regional links between councils.

The survey is based on ten local authorities and visits to five independent schools.

# A £50 million scheme to replace school blackboards with computer whiteboards has failed to improve children’s results, a report has found.

Ministers wanted the touch-sensitive boards to help to personalise teaching so that each child could learn at his or her own pace. But the government-funded evaluation cautioned that pupils were reduced to spectators as teachers produced faster and more complicated electronic displays.

School support

250,000 The number of children in state schools (3 per cent of the schools population) with SEN statements

1.5m The number of children in state schools (18 per cent) with special needs but no SEN statement

1978 The year of the Warnock report, which coined the term Special Educational Needs (SEN). It estimated that one in five children had a special need and 2 per cent had severe needs

90,290 The number of full-time pupils in special schools, down from 131,000 in 1979

£4.5bn Estimated expenditure by local authorities on SEN this year. Local spending on SEN rose from £2.8 billion to £4.1 billion between 2001 and 2005
# The term special educational needs, or SEN, covers conditions including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, behavioural problems and physical disabilities

Source: House of Commons Education and Skills Committee report, June 2006; Department for Education