What Cost the Hidden Children?

Independent schools are often associated with the middle classes and the privileged. When we imagine these schools we think of Eton and Harrow, of the gentry, and the rich and famous. We often imagine the oak lined libraries and the tail-coat uniforms.

Parents often pay small fortunes to secure places in those schools with the ‘best reputations’ for excellence. We also associate these schools with better access to Oxbridge Universities and other such establishments, with reputations for supplying the country with its most influential and powerful servants. Army officers, doctors, politicians, bankers, lawyers, judges and sports personalities are often the alumni of these prestigious institutions.  Secret societies, influences in corporate business, access to people and places some of us can only dream of.

You may or may not agree with the concept of private education and the fact that some people can afford to pay for, what they believe, is a better education. But did you know about the hidden side of independent education? Did you know that right now thousands of ‘other’ children are being educated in independent schools? Did you know than millions and millions of pounds of tax payer’s money is being spent in private schools across the land?


Let me introduce you to the world of Independent Special Schools. These schools are not funded by parents but by local councils. The education budget is diminished annually by more than £500 million to pay for places in independent special schools. These schools are often miles away from the children’s home and can cost in excess of £100,000 per year. Just the transport costs alone to these schools, paid for by the tax payer, costs over £43 million a year.

Data from a HTRT Freedom of Information request (completed by 113 Local Authorities) shows that 11,059 pupils attended independent special schools during the last academic year. This was at a total cost of £535,864,599 per year. This is a staggering amount of money!

Details by Local Authority may be found in the spreadsheet below:

HTRT – FoI Request: Special Schools

So what is the true cost of this hidden education? Why do we educate so many children with Special Needs in the independent sector? Let me try to shine a light on this from the humble point of view of a state funded special school head teacher.

I would first like to make it clear that, in my experience, most independent schools do a fantastic job educating our most vulnerable and challenging children. They deal with extremes of need and do it well. This is in no way any sort of attack on those individual schools, and our Special Needs children deserve the very best.  This is a reflection on why we are in a situation where millions and millions of pounds are being spent on private education when it could be more cost effective for the money to remain in the state sector.

At a time when austerity measures are at their peak and school budgets are stretched beyond belief why do we spend all this money on private education?

There are two reasons why SEN children attend these schools. The first is to do with the degree of specialism required to meet the needs of the children. In other words, highly specialist schools requiring extreme resourcing to meet the needs of the children. This is a legitimate reason and I would never deny our children what they need. However, why does it have to be in the independent sector? The second reason is that we haven’t got enough space in our state funded schools so we pay extreme amounts of money for them to go to independent schools. These children could and often do have their needs adequately met in much lower cost state provision.

The average cost of an Independent school SEN place is approximately £43,000 per year. This is more than double the cost of a place at my school. When you add the cost of transport this then rises to an average of £48,000. Pupils often have very long journeys to and from school or need residential provision, at additional cost, because school is so far away.

We are educating children in high cost schools because we haven’t got enough school places to educate them cheaper. We are trapped in a cycle of continuous high cost places because there is no easy mechanism to build state funded specialist provision. Just think of the savings that could be made that could then be put in to mainstream education to support inclusion.

So what is the answer?  Be strategic, be sensible, look at the data and the finance. Let’s build new special schools or expand the current ones. Let’s try to keep these vulnerable children closer to their families and educated in their own communities. Let’s save money and fund mainstream schools with adequate amounts of cash to provide effective provision. Let’s encourage schools, financially and through Ofsted judgements, to be inclusive. Let us champion schools who work with special needs children and give them a financial bonus to do so. Let’s challenge Ofsted to place on a metaphorical pedestal those schools with more special needs children than average. Let us all be proud when we have children with additional needs in our schools without fear of this impacting on our progress 8, Ebacc or league table standings.

Let’s just be sensible, morally driven and use our money better for the good of these children. It’s time we took the pie and divided it up differently.


Dave Whitaker is the Executive Principal of Springwell Special Academy & Springwell Alternative Academy and Director of Education (SEN & AP) Wellspring Academy Trust.

He is a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable Core Group

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4 thoughts on “What Cost the Hidden Children?

  1. Beefo October 1, 2016 at 9:59 am Reply

    I’m a parent with two children in an independent special school. I couldn’t agree more with your penultimate paragraph. I do have problems though with parts of the argument that leads you there.

    If I’ve got this right, you are arguing that more capacity in the mainstream special and special academies sectors would enable the needs of children like mine to be met in a way that is more cost-efficient to the taxpayer.

    It’s a reasonable argument, but one that rests firmly on an assumption that costs in the maintained / academy sector for this type of provision – often low-incidence, and very often high-need – would be lower than the independent sector.

    What is the evidence for this?

    You say that at least £538m was spent by LAs on meeting SEN via independent special schools last year. How confident are you that the same needs, for the same children, can be met lawfully in the state sector at a lower cost than the indie sector currently offers?

    SEND law is pretty clear – evidenced special educational needs must be met in full, in the most efficient manner. Recent SEND case law (Haining v Warrington, 2014) has clarified things further – when comparing costs to the public purse between state & independent provision, every relevant cost now has to be taken into account.

    LAs do not send kids like mine to independent special schools willingly. Two-thirds of the kids at my boys’ school only have their place through a decision made at SENDIST Tribunal, where costs and provision are weighed up dispassionately and mercilessly.

    In the case of my kids’ school, Tribunal rules in favour of placing them there around 90-95% of the time. And since the Haining judgement has deprived LAs of the ability to mask the true costs of meeting need in the state special sector, this decision is being made increasingly often on the basis of cost.

    In more and more of these decisions now, Tribunal accept that the LA’s preferred mainstream / state special / special academy option can meet the child’s needs in full. But because costs are now revealed in full, they also increasingly find that this independent special school can deliver provision more efficiently – even when transport & residential costs are taken into account.

    I absolutely agree with your main premise. We need more maintained special schools and special academies, as local as is practical based on incidence of SEN. Mainstream schools need better carrots & sticks to become more inclusive.

    But I would question an assumption that costs are automatically – or even likely – to be higher, or inflated, in the independent sector.

  2. Beefo October 1, 2016 at 10:14 am Reply

    Sorry to press this – one final thing:

    I really hope you didn’t mean to give this impression, but your first paragraphs set an unfortunate tone. Eliding a discussion of the motives of parents who send their children to non-special independent schools with those who send their children to independent special schools is a bad way to introduce this topic.

    The context you set also suggests that costs are somehow inflated in the indie special sector. That may be true for some operators. But I want to make it clear – absolutely clear – what drives my kids’s school to do what they do, and what they give back in return.

    Like most in this sector, my kids’ school is run by a charitable foundation. It has a clear mission – not just to offer kids with their SEN the best possible educational outcomes, but to invest in the foundations of meeting the needs of all children with this disability.

    The foundation runs the school. It also runs a nationally-renowned master’s level course in a mandatory qualification for training specialist teachers, the vast majority of whom then go on to teach in the state maintained sector. It makes no profit in doing so. It offers ongoing specialist CPD to these same teachers, often at cost or at no cost.

    The school makes its facilities available to the local community at a low cost: sports facilities, music facilities, drama. It offers specialist therapy to preschoolers at low cost. It runs clinics for adults with this disability who need specialist equipment maintained.

    I’ve re-read your first paragraphs. My kids’ school, the kids themselves, and their parents are about as far removed from the initial contextual picture you paint as it’s possible to get. It is really, really unfortunate that you chose to begin this great blog this way.

    My kids’s school is independent. It is also a special school. It is also a community asset, a cultural and educational asset for the wider disability it supports, and a national asset for the entire education sector. And it educates my kids more effectively, with greater financial efficiency, than any other organisation could or would.

  3. cherrylkd October 2, 2016 at 9:20 am Reply

    Reblogged this on SENBlogger.

  4. teachingbattleground October 30, 2016 at 8:17 am Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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