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SEND transport: Replacing process with purpose

Supporting pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has never been more challenging.

Supporting pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has never been more challenging.

Across the country, local authorities are facing the difficulties of forecasting SEND budgets accurately. Expenditure on areas such as school transport for pupils with SEND are increasing significantly, from £638 million in 2013 to £777 million in 2017.

Our analysis shows that this expenditure could increase by a further £444 million by 2024 if no significant interventions are made to local authority delivery models.

Figure 1: Local Authority Spend on SEND Transport (£million)


Source: Section 251 budget data

The challenges associated with providing support for pupils with SEND are brought sharply into focus in the recent National Audit Office (NAO) report1, which highlights that:

  • The number of pupils identified as having the greatest needs has risen since 2014, increasing the demand for support -  currently, there are 1.3 million pupils in England identified as having SEND in January 2019
  • Local authorities are increasingly overspending their budgets for supporting pupils with high needs – 81% of local authorities overspent on their high-needs budget in 2017/18 compared to 47.3% in 2013/14

The NAO report concluded that this increase is partly due to the rise in the number of pupils in special schools, which serve larger catchment areas making it more likely pupils are travelling further than two or three miles. Undoubtedly, the location of pupils, school catchment areas and the increasing number of pupils attending special schools will all influence the cost of SEND transport services.

But our experience also tells us that the factors contributing to these increases in expenditure are much more nuanced and are driven by things such as the balance of internal and external service provision or the maturity of independent travel training schemes and personal travel budgets.

To explore these factors further, we have created a risk dashboard that evaluates historic spend and performance data and projects the future demand and cost of SEND transport at a local authority level. This dashboard enables us to understand unit cost across separate geographies and by different types of authorities.

These challenges are presented in the context of a real-terms reduction in spending power and the rapidly increasing costs of demand-led services as populations grow and age. Government has responded, in the short term, via the recent spending round, with a £700 million funding boost for pupils with the most complex needs and a major review into support for children with special educational needs.

However, if councils are genuinely looking to change the trajectory towards increased cost and demand, they need to focus on areas where they can make the most significant impact.

Tipping the scales:

We've been working with clients to understand how local authorities can improve SEND transport services. Our analysis highlights that average spend per service user (the unit cost) varies greatly across different councils and regions: the highest average unit cost is found in Yorkshire and The Humber (at £8,010 per service user), while the lowest average unit cost is in the North East (at £3,986 per service user).

Figure 2: Unit cost by authority type and total number of SEND pupils


Source: Grant Thornton SEND spend analysis

But how do councils drive down unit cost while safeguarding services for those most in need? Especially when local authorities are under an increased and unsustainable pressure to meet growing demand and growing cost.

Understand the complete system

Local authorities must develop a rich picture of its service users, their needs, aspirations and the factors pushing them towards these services. A richer dataset enables councils to forecast future demand and costs more accurately, and understanding this trajectory is the first step in changing it.

Design out complexity

The responsibility to deliver SEND transport services often span multiple service areas and directorates. It's important to map this complexity and recognise where it is suppressing outcomes or increasing inefficiency and cost. If it's not adding value, the complexity needs to be removed or redirected.

Replace process with purpose

The primary purpose of SEND transport services is to connect children and young people to vital services and opportunities for learning, socialising and care in a way that supports greater independence and life skills. To take such an approach, authorities need to shift mindsets, moving away from traditional transport provision and management to a position where they can commission the most appropriate forms of assistance. Supporting independence, avoiding isolation and preparing young people for a better adulthood.

Embed accountability

Given the inherent complications associated with the above, councils need make sure that any change to how the service operates stick, and that they embed the necessary behaviours to ensure teams don't revert to the old way of doing things.

We have a successful track record in changing the trajectory towards increased cost and demand in SEND transport.


Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England, National Audit Office, 2019

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