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SEN Policy Research Forum Exeter

What is the consequence of more children being sent to private special schools?

What is the consequence of more children being sent to private special schools?

Gary Thomas, University of Birmingham

There have been large increases in the number of children sent to non-maintained special schools in recent years. To assess the extent of this trend and its probable consequences, I and my colleagues sent Freedom of Information requests about spending on private special schools to a stratified sample of 24 local authorities in England. Their responses revealed substantial rises in spending recently, with spending of up to £0.3 million per child per annum (see Thomas et al, 2023).

We argue that the increasing reliance on private special school placement carries not only potential risks for the education, care and wellbeing of the students placed in often distant schools, with recent evidence of cases of serious neglect and abuse in such schools, but also threats to the development of inclusive practice. Current policy and its associated funding mechanisms incentivise separation and are inimical to the development of inclusive solutions to children’s and young people’s problems at school. We argue that systems need to be developed which enable the substantial sums currently spent on private special schools to be re-deployed to cultivate imaginative inclusive responses to the difficulties experienced by some children at school.

Our analysis draws parallels with an equivalent situation in childcare, where there has been a similarly mounting reliance on private provision. Analysis of the issue there, including an auditing of the costs and use of such provision, has pointed to the problems that emerge from this growing dependence on private rather than public resources, with inadequate regulation of the sector allowing poor practice, and, at worst, cases of neglect and abuse to occur. One of the recommendations proposed in the childcare sector – namely, the development of regional cooperatives for procurement, oversight and regulation of private provision – seems relevant also in education.

We argue that the very substantial sums currently being spent on private special school places could often be employed more fruitfully in finding inclusive solutions to students’ problems – if funding mechanisms enabled this. Current systems of funding, though, make separation expedient, and even incentivise it. There is no mechanism for enabling the substantial moneys – or, indeed, any proportion of them – associated with private special provision to be transferred to the mainstream to be deployed there. Potential mechanisms for the re-direction of resources need to be explored.

A start might come in requiring LAs to make cost-benefit analyses of these placements. The very high payments made to private schools could, for example, comfortably cover the cost of full-time care at home and/or in the neighbourhoods in which students reside, alongside one-to-one teaching plus one-to-one support from teaching assistants in inclusive school placements in home communities. A cost-benefit analysis would specify the options available to meet a student’s needs, such as teaching from a full- or part-time teacher, teaching assistant support, peripatetic teacher support, care assistance, attendance at therapy sessions, and part- or full-time attendance at a special facility. It would proceed to identify and assess the potential outcomes of those options including the benefit of factors such as non-removal from a student’s home community, and weigh these against the cost (in financial, social and educational terms) of the various options.

But finance systems in LAs are inimical to such potential flexibility in the use of resources. Lack of coherent policy and associated administrative infrastructure means that it is impossible to take a proactive decision to spend £250K or more on a community-based solution to a child’s difficulties at school – even though this may be the price of a private special school placement if the child is ultimately removed from the mainstream. Originality and imagination in finding inclusive solutions to young people’s problems at school are likely to be in short supply as long as the relatively straightforward expedient of separation to a private special school exists.



Thomas, G., Dobson, G. & Loxley, A. (2023) The increasing use of private special schools: a policy gap for inclusive education. British Educational Research Journal, online at



Gary Thomas is emeritus professor of inclusion and diversity at the School of Education in the University of Birmingham

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Christopher Robertson
8 months ago

I think Gary Thomas’s argument reminds us that
2014 SEND reforms were conceptually flawed from the outset.

As the reforms were developed/piloted no real attention was given to the role of local authorities (let alone local areas), in terms of SEND statutory duties, associated financial responsibilities, provision planning etc.

We continue to reap the consequences today and the government’s approach to improvement planning is unlikely to be successful because it is premised on the view that we simply need to get the implementation right ‘this time’.

As such, it reflects a policy tradition of puncture repair in circumstances where the tyres are bald.

What we really need is to review the role of local authorities and local areas, both imaginatively and innovatively, and then consider how SEND policy, practice and provision an be developed to serve local communities.

Louise Love
8 months ago

In Nottinghamshire we devolve the first element of additional needs funding directly to schools. This enables schools who are inclusive in their approach, to have much more flexibility in how additional funding for individual pupils with SEN is used and means that schools don’t have to wait for 20 weeks before funding is received.
I feel that we have held on to some very inclusive mainstream practice because of this.
These are public funds so there has to be a level of bureaucracy which is sometimes criticised and not understood at a tribunal level which undermines the idea significantly.
Uncertainty about funding reduces a schools confidence in maintaining a good level of quality support in the long term, which in turn undermines a parents confidence in mainstream inclusion. Parents can’t wait around for the system to be fixed. Their child gets one crack at childhood development so they go for what they see as the safest option.
Sadly, parents are often not told about the strong evidence surrounding poorer outcomes for segregated education or the strength of law protecting their child’s right to be educated in their mainstream school.

Gary Thomas
7 months ago
Reply to  Louise Love

Sound good that the first element of additional needs funding is devolved directly to schools. We were suggesting a complete restructure of the funding process so that officers and schools would be able to say ‘OK, all else has not been successful, so our options now are either to spend £200K on a private special school OR we spend that £200K on a community based solution. That option is not present currently: the £200K is not available for a community based solution – just a tiny fraction of that amount.

Philippa Gordon-Gould
8 months ago

The real driver of this problem has been that in the name of promoting a more ‘inclusive’ educational policy councils have been forced to close large numbers of special schools. Where mainstream has disastrously failed, parents have been left with no alternative but to find placements privately often at great distance from home involving expensive travel costs. A more realistic approach would to recognise that inclusion should be about including children in an effective high quality local school system with specialist settings running in parallel, but not within, mainstream. The essential need for providing high quality specialist provision in local communities is what is missing from current reforms which focus on increasing numbers of places rather than addressing the genuine need for high quality resources training and staff that are rapidly being drained from the system. There is no easy cheap way around the problem, only one that is less demanding on travel budgets and controversial legal battles than currently exists. See ‘Inclusive Education at the Crossroads: Exploring Effective Special Provision in Global Contexts.’ P.Gordon-Gould and G. Hornby.

Gary Thomas
7 months ago

Yes. I agree wholeheartedly with ‘A more realistic approach would to recognise that inclusion should be about including children in an effective high quality local school system with specialist settings running in parallel’. Current funding systems seem to be preventing this from happening as money is drained away to distant, hugely expensive private provision.

Siobhain Martin
7 months ago

I am at the ‘chalk end’ of this issue as a Senior Tribunals Office for a large SEND Service in a Local Authority in the South East of England. I have worked in SEND in schools as a TA initially and after post graduate training as a specialist teacher of ASD and SEMH. I have visited thousands of schools including private independent special schools as part of my work and conclude the following: compared to their state funded alternatives, independent special schools fare worse in OFSTED Inspections often being inadequate/requiring improvement for a number of years despite receiving funding up to 4 times higher than state funded special schools. They are often not staffed with skilled or trained staff, some do not even utilize teachers but ‘therapists’. When I have looked into this issue deeper I find out that these ‘therapists’ are not unionized or have any education or health experience . Independent special schools do not always work in the best interests of the child and family e.g. by offering school spaces on extensive taster days raising hopes of a place when the funding by the LA has not been agreed or proper consultations carried out. Many state funded special schools could also ‘work wonders’ if they had access to the funding that the independent special schools charge. SENDIST often ‘side’ with the family in the appeal despite good state provision being offered. The current ‘bulge’ in years 6-9 is making the situation of overcapacity at state special school extremely challenging and has left an opportunity for the special independent sector to capitalize on this. This is my view based on my experience and observations.

Gary Thomas
7 months ago

That’s my experience too, Siobhain, as an ed psych visiting many of these schools, albeit a long time ago, but your experience certainly bears mine out. It seems that not much has changed in the quality (in the main) of these places. My colleagues and I want to follow this up at some stage. May we be in touch ?

Catherine Wills
5 days ago

This is absolutely spot on! Independent schools who are inspected by flawed ISI are particularly awful profiteering institutions. Having first hand experience of my own child and others in my position who would have much preferred a place in a State school. We ended up with a place at a mainstream independent- which did not meet need but far worse, incidents of bullying abuse and ongoing cover ups which led to trauma. Parents were left with nowhere to turn no recourse and the only option was to remove our children into more turmoil/ fights for provision. The school continues to profit with 90 percent LA funding ( previously bankrupt when operating without EHCP student intake). No matter how many safeguarding incidents occurred the LA continued to place due to lack of SEN provision.

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