**Rise in special needs pupils forced to attend out-of-area schools.
Some have to travel hundreds of miles as funding cuts stretch education authorities.**
**_Almost 20,000 children with special educational needs such as autism are attending school outside their council area because of shortfalls in local provision – with the number rising by nearly a fifth in two years, the Observer can reveal.
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that some children are studying hundreds of miles from home as the special education needs and disability (Send) system struggles to cope with a funding crisis.
Parents of children with Send are preparing for a national day of action on May 30 in protest at the lack of funding, with more than 25 demonstrations across England and Wales and a rally in Westminster.
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said: “The Tories have created a crisis in high-needs funding for schools, and it is the most vulnerable children who are paying the price. Tens of thousands of children are travelling outside their areas, with the cuts making it impossible for either mainstream or specialist schools to provide the places and support they need.”
The Observer’s figures show that in 2018-19, 19,771 special needs children of compulsory school age attended school outside their local authority area. The true figure will be higher, as only 113 of England’s 151 councils provided data. Among the 100 councils that provided figures from 2016-17 to 2018-19, the number of out-of-area school placements rose by 18% from 15,503 to 18,229.
At least one child from Haringey in London is studying in Scotland, while small numbers of children from Surrey and Hampshire are attending school in Newcastle and Lancashire respectively.
The reasons for these specific children’s placements are not known, but one mother, Holly Batten, told the Observer that her 13-year-old son, who has Asperger’s, pathological demand avoidance and sensory processing disorder, has to stay at a boarding school 100 miles from their home.
Their local council initially tried to send her son to an unsuitable local school, forcing Batten to appeal to a tribunal. “The school that the local authority named … there was just absolutely no possibility of that being suitable – so much so that the local authority actually conceded the afternoon before the tribunal hearing.
“I think that’s the frustrating part for many parents – that the local authority have only got so many local schools, and if they don’t have suitable local provision, they will try and do everything they can to get that child into that provision even though it’s not suitable.”
It is far cheaper for cash-strapped councils to fund placements in local state schools than out-of-area schools, especially independent ones. In some cases, parents decide to have their children home-schooled instead of attending unsuitable local schools.
The government has announced it will fund 37 new special schools and two alternative provision schools, creating 3,400 new places – far lower than the total number of children currently in out-of-area schools.
One of the county councils that lost out in the bidding to open a new special school is Nottinghamshire, where the number of out-of-area placements has doubled in two years.
The council said it was investing its own money in opening new special schools. Marion Clay, the county council’s education service director, said: “Like most other areas of the country, Nottinghamshire has witnessed an increase in parental preference for independent non-maintained schools. Our experience is that tribunals are upholding parental preference.”
The largest percentage rise in out-of-area placements between 2016-17 and 2018-19 was in Milton Keynes, where numbers nearly trebled from 36 children to 102, while the placements more than doubled in Redcar and Cleveland, Hertfordshire and Staffordshire.
A statement from Hertfordshire county council said it was aware of the issue, which it partly attributed to a lack of special school places within the county. The council, which successfully bid for government funding to open a new special school, said it was embarking on a transformation of local special needs services in response.
Anntoinette Bramble, of the Local Government Association, which represents local authorities, said: “It is fundamentally wrong that mainstream schools are increasingly unable to support children with special needs. As a result we are seeing more children with special needs being educated in much more expensive special schools – which can often be outside their local authority area – than in mainstream schools.
“Councils are reaching the point where the money is simply not there to keep up with demand, pushing support for children with Send to a tipping point.
“While it was good the government announced money for Send last year, it must use the forthcoming spending review to plug the estimated special needs funding gap facing councils of up to £1.6bn by 2021.”
Nadhim Zahawi, the children and families minister, said: “Our ambition for children with Send is exactly the same for every other child – to achieve well in education, and go on to live happy and fulfilled lives. This is why in March we announced we would create 37 new special free schools to make sure no child is deprived of a quality education that meets their needs. Not only will this boost choice for parents, it will provide specialist support and education for pupils with more complex needs which for some will be closer to their homes.
“Local authorities and schools have statutory duties to support children and young people with Send. In 2019-20 councils will receive £6.3bn of funding for young people with more complex Send, including an additional £250m announced last December. However, we are aware that local authorities and schools are facing challenges in managing their budgets and we are looking carefully at how much funding for education will be needed in future years, as we approach the next spending review.”
When Lisa Marie Binns moved to Portsmouth from Devon in 2014, she did not anticipate the problems she would have finding schools for her two children.
In Devon, her elder son, Oliver, now 16, went to a local school alongside other autistic children. Her younger son, Austin, now nine, had yet to start school.
But Portsmouth council placed Oliver, who is academically bright and has autism and special sensory needs, in a unit designed for children at risk of exclusion.
“The other pupils didn’t understand him,” said Binns. “He had nothing in common with them because he didn’t walk to school, he didn’t go out to the park, he didn’t do anything outside of the home without an adult. They were very different children, and it was entirely the wrong environment.
“He was bullied. He has Tourette’s so he makes noises sometimes, and they would take the mick out of him for that or, more often than not, he would be told off for making noises.”
After nearly 18 months at the school, Oliver suffered a breakdown and left. Remarkably, the council tried to send him back, but a tribunal eventually accepted Binns’s request for him to be sent to Grateley House boarding school, 50 miles away near Andover – the only one of around 30 schools she visited that met his needs.
During the eight months in which Oliver was out of school, he became increasingly anxious and bed-bound.
“You can’t make provision for every type of need in every borough – that would not be common sense. But there needs to be more provision, more widely available, closer to many more people.”
Oliver is settled at Grateley House, but Binns is now fighting to find a school for Austin, who also has autism. Despite the fact that he started to self-harm at his previous school as a way of coping with his anxiety in a mainstream environment, the council has not issued him with a special needs plan.
“He doesn’t meet the criteria for any of the autism provision in the city, because he doesn’t have challenging behaviour. I’ve been round and looked round all of them.”
Without the money to hire lawyers, Binns has dedicated herself full-time to learning to advocate for herself and her children. “But equally I have friends who have spent thousands of pounds, have remortgaged homes, lost homes and gone bankrupt.”_**