Over 180 children a day approach councils for special needs support as local authorities warn that government reforms will not stem the tide

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2023 | 21 June 2023

The number of children on special needs support plans in England is now over half a million, with councils warning the government’s reforms will not stem the tide of demand.

Analysis by the County Councils Network (CCN) shows that last year 182 young people a day begun an Education, Health and Care plan (EHCP) after their parent or guardian approached their council for special needs support, with over 500,000 young people now on these plans across the country.

The number of children being eligible for EHCPs, which sets out the level of support for each individual, has dramatically increased from 2015 in the aftermath of the then-government’s Children and Families Act 2014 which expanded eligibility of specialist needs support.

EHCPs replaced Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Statements. In 2014 as the act was beginning to be introduced, an average of 73 plans a day were begun compared to 182 a day in 2022.

The government has outlined a package of SEND reforms which will be introduced later this year, but local authority leaders warn that with the numbers of children requiring support continuing to rise sharply each year, the proposals are not enough to stem the tide.

Council leaders have called on the government to set out a solution and fully-fun the reforms, with councils’ SEND budgets reaching ‘unmanageable’ deficits.

If a child goes onto an EHCP, the school is a required pay the first £6,000 in support with the local authority financing the rest. But with numbers of pupils on these specialist plans more than doubling since 2015, these spiralling costs for councils have meant local authorities have built up significant deficits in their SEND budgets.

The analysis by CCN shows:

  • The number of young people on EHCPs in England as of January 2023 now stands at 517,026 – more than double the amount of pupils – 240,183 – receiving specialist support in 2015, a year after the legislation that expanded eligibility took effect. Last year, there were 66,356 young people who started new EHCP plans – the largest-ever number which equates to an average of 182 children each day.
  • Councils in England’s county areas have seen demand rise higher than the national average. This year there were 229,471 young people in county areas on an EHCP, up from 105,045 in 2015. Last year, 28,753 pupils begun a plan, which equates to an average of 78 a day – up from just 29 a day in 2014 before the reforms were introduced.
  • Last year, there were 114,457 requests for an EHCP made – the largest-ever number in a year, and up by almost a quarter (23%) compared to 2021. In county areas, referrals were up 20%.
  • With some of these young people requiring thousands of pounds in support after a schools’ contribution is spent, councils have accrued significant deficits in their SEND budgets. Last year the deficit stood at £2.4bn, with councils in county areas accounting for half of this – £1.2bn. Left unchecked, the national deficit for all 152 councils in England is expected to rise to £3.6bn.

The government’s SEND Improvement Plan, unveiled this March, sets out new national standards which will clarify the support available to parents, as well as improving the number of specialist school places.

In addition, the government has been speaking to individual councils as part of its ‘safety valve’ programme, where individual local authorities are provided with funding to decrease their deficits alongside implementing changes to their SEND support locally.

But council leaders warn that the proposals to not adequately address the core demand and cost issues within the system, especially in the short-term, and have called on the future government to fully-fund these 2014 legislative changes that have resulted in a huge spike in demand.

Cllr Liz Brighouse, Education and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Spokesperson for the County Councils Network, said:

“Despite the government’s reforms package for SEND services outlining some important changes which are beginning to be implemented, demand has continued to rise sharply with councils under extreme pressure to ensure every child gets the support they need, with 182 EHCPs starting each day on average in last year compared less than half that number in 2015.

“We remain concerned that these reforms will not stem the tide of demand that local authorities are facing, and whilst the legislative changes in 2014 were right in that they expanded eligibility and raised parental expectations, councils have increasingly been left to pick up the bill which has increased their deficits to unmanageable levels.

“Action is needed urgently to address this, and we are calling on government to fully-fund these reforms and ensure that councils do not continue to accrue significant deficits that would be impossible to pay down without insolvency.”


Notes to editor

  • The data in this report is based on a CCN analysis of this government data for Education, Health and Care Plans. The data includes figures on total plans in 2023, as well the numbers of young people starting EHCPs in 2022 and the number of requests in 2022, broken down by the 37 counties in CCN’s membership and the total for England.
  • Figures on rising SEN deficits for county and rural local authorities are taken from this dataset from the Society of County Treasurers. The society received 80 responses out of 151 authorities and these figures were then aggregated up to provide a total figure for all 151 councils with SEN responsibility in England.
  • The Children and Young Families Act 2014 introduced EHCPs, replacing the old system of SEN Statements. These new EHCPs expanded eligibility criteria and expanded the age to which a young person can stay on support: from 16 to 25. Data from the Local Government Association shows that in the five-year period from 2008/09 the number of people on SEN Statements grew just 4%.