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Is Underfunding and Staff Burnout Creating a Global Crisis in Special Education?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 22nd October 2022

Special education around the world is in crisis. New stories are emerging weekly of the struggles schools are facing to retain staff and meet the needs of students. Last week, The Guardian reported how mainstream schools in England are struggling to retain and recruit teaching assistants, who play a key role in supporting pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Anecdotal evidence points to similar problems in special schools, although the UK government does not collect data on special schools.  The Guardian highlighted how low wages and the rising cost of living are forcing key support staff to seek better paid employment elsewhere. Low pay is not the only issue, however, as research shows the challenges of the role are increasing, due to increasing pupil numbers and inadequate funding. While special education is highly rewarding work, it is also innately challenging. Without appropriate resourcing, schools struggle to cope with the complex needs of their pupils. In 2019, UNISON outlined the shocking levels of abuse and violent assaults that support staff are subjected to, made worse by insufficient funding, causing higher pupil-teacher ratios, inadequate training and reduced support from external agencies. These challenges come at the same time as reductions in paid holidays for TAs across the country, meaning many have to take on additional jobs to make ends meet. This has created a situation where many are burning out and leaving the profession for jobs that will provide a better work-life balance. 

A Global Shortage of Special Educators

High levels of staff burnout in special education is a phenomenon experienced worldwide and affects both support staff and teachers.  In 2018, the OECD identified a global shortage of qualified special education teachers caused in part by escalating attrition rates in what it described as a “high-burnout profession.” Across the world, special education teachers are leaving their posts in droves. In the US, for example, the Office of Special Education reports that special education teachers leave the profession at twice the rate of other colleagues, due to poor pay and stressful working conditions. Staff cite lack of support from administrators and colleagues, large caseloads, excessive paperwork, student behaviour, and poor salary and benefits as the main reasons for leaving.

Increasing Demand and Inadequate Funding

In recent decades, a push to secure equal learning opportunities for all has led to increasing numbers of students with special educational needs being integrated into mainstream schools. During this time, the number of children requiring special education has also grown. In England, the percentage of students with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHC) increased by 30% between 2017 and 2021. In the USA over the last decade, the number of children with learning disabilities has grown from 6.5 to 7.3 million. In Canada, 17% of elementary students and 27% of secondary students currently qualify for special education services, nearly double the number qualifying in 2000. This is placing pressure not only on mainstream schools but also on special schools, which are struggling to cope with increasing pupil numbers. In England, the number of pupils attending a special school has increased five times more than the increase in the overall pupil cohort in recent years. There are reports of pupils crammed into  buildings, as schools struggle to find space to accommodate them, as well as inadequate funding being provided to meet pupils’ needs. 

A 2020 UK parliamentary report highlighted the lack of special education funding for mainstream schools as a major issue, while Ofsted reports that schools face significant delays in obtaining support from local authorities, with some pupils waiting up to five years for their EHC to be approved. In the USA, special education provision has been chronically underfunded for decades. Despite a mandate that the federal government meet 40% of special educational needs costs, support has never reached this level and currently stands below 15%. The Australian Education Union reports that two-thirds of public schools do not have enough resources to meet the needs of students with additional needs, while 91% of public-school principals identify a need for additional classroom support for students.

Meeting students’ special educational needs with inadequate resources is a constant pressure not only for teachers and support staff but also for school leaders. Studies into headteacher and principal wellbeing show this to be a major contributor to burnout for some.  In Canada in 2020, school principals identified lack of special education support and resources as the single most draining thing about their work.

Pupils and Families Failed by the System

Ultimately though, those who suffer the most are pupils and their families who are being failed by the system. As educators, we dedicate our lives to ensuring that all pupils have the best opportunities, no matter what their background. We know that with the right level of support, children and young people with additional needs can go on to live independent, fulfilling lives and make a positive impact on ther world. We also know the devastating impact that inadequate support can have on students, with many at risk of becoming highly vulnerable members of society. A paper from the Howard League for Penal Reform, published in the UK this year, reported that two-thirds of children in the prison system have special educational needs, while adult prisoners in the USA are two and a half times more likely to have a special need or disability than the general population. 

In recent years, many governments have carried out large-scale reviews of special education provision and new funding has been made available. The sums involved, however, are insufficient to tackle the impact of chronic, long-term underfunding coupled with increasing demand for services. Recent cuts to public spending to fund the fall-out of the pandemic and address the growing world economic crisis, erode the positive impact of this funding even further.  Despite the growing need for services, other governments have continued to implement cuts to special education.  In 2018 Australian schools saw a reduction of $31 million in funding for students with disabilities in five states and territories, on top of a general public school funding shortfall of $19 billion.

Solutions at Government Level

What we need are central governments that understand the importance of good quality special education, not only for the individuals who benefit most from it but also to society as a whole. Governments that are prepared to act with urgency to address the current situation before the crisis deepens further. We need cohesive, long-term plans to fund universal provision for children and young people with special educational needs, across special and mainstream schools, health, and wider services. We need funds to enable schools to improve pay and working conditions, to help prevent burnout and keep special needs teachers and support staff in the profession. There is also an urgent need for funds to train mainstream teachers to be more competent and confident in the delivery of special education provision.

On a final note, research shows that an increasingly disproportionate number of students with special educational needs are from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Governments need to commission research to investigate what is causing the huge increase in students presenting at school with special needs and tackle the root causes of this worrying trend.

Underfunding of special education in our schools is having a damaging impact on educators, school leaders, students, their families and society at large. Governments need to act now before the system unravels completely.