£600 million SEND reforms: Disabled children have had poor value for money

£600 million SEND reforms: Disabled children have had poor value for money

Money. A chorus of voices are speaking up, telling us there’s not enough of it. Parents, teachers, unions, local authorities, all with different perspectives, but all telling us that we are in the middle of a funding crisis.

The process of moving from the old SEND system to the new one is now over – in theory. Many people are arguing that the new system still needs time to bed in. I’m no gardener, but I know that you need fertiliser to bed things in, and that you need to deploy it wisely. And in the case of these reforms, the fertiliser of choice has been money.

Ever wonder how much the SEND reforms cost, and where the money went? Read on…

Estimating the Cost of the SEND Reforms

There’s no single document that lays it all out how much the SEND reforms have cost to design, develop and implement so far. It’s possible to estimate it though, by trawling through government procurement data and FOI responses.

Some of this info is contradictory in places, but it looks like from 2011 to March 2018, the process of moving from the old SEND system to the new SEND system cost central government at least £550m, and probably more like £600m.

That’s a hefty sum – especially once you realise that the purpose of this £600m was just to power the process of system change. Only tiny amounts of this money actually reached the front line.

Where did it all go?

The pie chart breaks it down. Most of the £600m has been doled out by central government in the form of local authority grants, as well as short-term contracts sprayed across a range of charities, third sector groups and private sector firms.Where did the £600 million go?

I haven’t been able to work out what happened to over a third of the overall spend. Most of the missing money appears to have been given directly to LAs in the early phases of the SEND reforms, between 2014 and 2016. But the other two-thirds breaks down like this:

  • Roughly £17m went on designing and road-testing the SEND reforms – the so-called Pathfinder pilot stage, which lasted from 2011-15.
  • The Independent Supporter setup – intended to help parents navigate system change – accounted for £60m of the overall total.
  • Parent Carer Forums (PCFs) and other parent participation projects came in at roughly £12-13m.
  • And £35m appears to have gone on a variety of “strategic support” contracts to help the DfE, local authorities and PCFs adapt to the new system.

The bang for their buck that families of children with SEND have got for their £600m is hard to measure – it’ll vary hugely, depending a bit on how far you’ve relied on them over the last 4 years. In some cases – particularly the Pathfinder spending – it’s hard to make a case that it achieved anything durable.

Arguably, some of the most effective spending is hardly visible on the pie chart. Barely 1% of this spending was earmarked for supporting the front-line SEND workforce – but some projects within this category, such as Whole School SEND, have done a great deal to improve things.

The largest single measurable chunk of this £600m was given directly to local authorities in the form of grants: £223m between 2014 and 2018, doled out by the DfE to help LAs implement the SEND reforms (see chart 2)
what did £223 million of the form money go on?

At least, that was the theory. Because the £223m grant money wasn’t ringfenced– LAs weren’t obliged to spent it on implementing the SEND reforms at all, as long as they spent it lawfully. And there appears to have been no meaningful external monitoring of how LAs have spent this £223m– the DfE don’t appear to have checked, and there is no public evidence to suggest that Ofsted / CQC local area SEND inspectors have monitored it either.

This seemed like a strange omission. So I decided to ask LAs what they’d spent it on. 

What happened to the £223m?

I’ve managed to track down what happened to £158m of the £223m grant money – that’s about 70% of it.

What happened to the other 30%? Hard to tell – it probably won’t surprise you to learn that not every LA coughed up specified, quantified information on their grant spending. And worse still, about a dozen LAs simply couldn’t account for their grant spending in any meaningful way at all.

I looked at how LAs spent some of this DfE grant money in a previous SNJ post– and it’s been a pretty similar story one year on.

Where did LAs spend their SEND grant money?

Most of the grant money has gone in the broad direction of SEND, and some LAs have used bits of it innovatively. For example, several LAs used grant money to trial a software platform for interactive EHCP content; other LAs used it to set up and sustain platforms for young people with SEND to take part in strategy development.

Despite this, the grant money hasn’t done much to bring about SEND system change. In particular, it has failed to deliver key shifts that the new system depended on for success – better approaches to working with families, and better joint working with health and social care. A deeper dig into the grant spending explains why.

Staff Spending: In-House or Out-House?

LAs used most of their DfE grant money to expand their SEND workforce. About three quarters of the spending I tracked went on SEND administrative workers, managers and project leaders, as well as specialist staff like Educational Psychologists.

However, the way this money was deployed matters. Most of the staff spending went on temps and agency staff, rather than permanent staff– particularly in the 2017-18 financial year, when the vast majority was spent on workers to handle the process of converting statements of special educational need (SSENs) to Education, Health & Care Plans (EHCPs).

Employment agencies have done very well out of the SEND reforms; seven out of the top 10 private sector recipients of grant money came from this sector.

LAs also used the grant money to pay for other people to draft EHCPs for them– school staff, trainee educational psychologists, and above all private EHCP writing firms. A single EHCP writing firm took well over £1m of grant spending – and that’s a fraction of the firm’s revenue over this period.

Where’s the Training?

A fluid, temporary workforce isn’t necessarily a problem – but it is if the overall workforce is undertrained, and that’s exactly what appears to have happened.

The quantity of this DfE grant money spent by LAs on training was tiny– about £2m over four years, or 1.5% of overall tracked spending. And most of this training spending happened early on, with only miniscule amounts spent in 2017-18.

It’s almost impossible to make system change work without proper training. That’s exactly what this DfE grant was supposed to pay for – to give LAs the funding to change the way they worked, to tool up tens of thousands of council and school staff with the knowledge and skills to work differently.

Instead, we’ve ended up with an undertrained and increasingly temporary SEND workforce trying to apply a new set of processes to long-established ways of working. LAs spent three times more on private consultants – some being paid more than £500 per day - than they did on training. And it shows.

Joined up, or coming apart at the seams?

Joint working was the great white hope of the SEND reforms: education, health, and social care, all working in blissful harmony to improve outcomes for our kids.

Again, that’s not really come off – and when you look at the way the grant money has been spent, it’s not hard to see why - because less than 3% of tracked grant spending went on projects to improve joint working.

Many of the Ofsted / CQC local area SEND inspections have pointed to problems with joint working between education and health. This grant offered an opportunity to retool. Only a few LAs took that opportunity up.

An abuse of resources - spent AGAINST disabled children

And then we come to spending that looks at best wasteful, and at worst downright abusive.

Nineteen LAs used DfE grant money to pay for legal services – solicitors, barristers, legal consultants, expert witnesses, and in-house Tribunal case officers. The worst of these LAs spent over £100,000 of their DfE grant to defend against SENDIST appeals – appeals that on average, LAs lost at least 86% of the time.

This money was given to these LAs to help them implement SEND reforms – not to defend unwinnable cases, putting parents through immense stress in the process. Parents alerted the DfE and Ofsted to this use of DfE grant money. They did nothing – in fact, they could hardly have been less interested.

Elsewhere, chunks of grant money simply appear to have been blown to little obvious purpose. Some LAs spent large sums of grant money to prepare for Ofsted / CQC local area SEND inspections. One LA put its SEND management through a set of expensive psychometric tests. Others spent tens of thousands of pounds on off-site meetings, breakfast get-togethers and away days at hotels.

In the grand scheme of things, this type of expenditure wasn’t that financially significant – but it sticks in the craw when parents, schools and professionals are regularly told that the financial cupboard is bare.

So £600 million. So what did we get?

So that’s the story of what happened to £600m. We’ve now transitioned over to a new SEND system, one where many still aren’t getting the simpler, person-centred, more joined up support that the system was supposed to enable.

£600m is a hell of a lot of money to invest in things that have barely touched front-line SEND provision. £600m that’s barely touched extra school places, specialist teaching, or therapy. This £600m has gone almost entirely on greasing bureaucratic wheels. And bar a few honourable exceptions, this £600m investment has failed to deliver.

Was all this money wasted? No. If you’ve had a kick-ass Independent Supporter in your corner, if you’ve learned about your children’s rights from a session run by your Parent Carer Forum, if you’re a SENDCo who now knows how to properly evaluate their school’s practice via a SEND Reflection Framework, then you’ve benefited from a bit of this £600m investment.

On the other hand, huge chunks of this £600m been frittered away. Key organisational behaviours really haven’t changed that much. The quality of SEN Support and EHCP process flows remain patchy at best – and appallingly, unlawfully poor at worst.

And if you’re a parent who’s faced a barrister at SENDIST paid for by DfE grant money, if your child has had a shockingly poor quality EHCP that’s been drafted by a student, if you’re a professional that’s been fed mythical procedural rubbish by undertrained LA officers, if your PCF doesn’t want to rock the boat when facing eye-watering cuts, or if you’re a family just desperately trying to get education and health to talk to each other - then it’s hard not to grind your teeth, and wonder why so much has been spent with so little impact.

It’s also hard to fathom why so much money has been doled out without anyone in charge meaningfully checking what it’s been spent on. Contract spending has been monitored – but the grant money hasn’t been ringfenced, and inspectors don’t appear to be checking to see what it’s been used for. Schools have to rigorously account for their Pupil Premium money – not for the first time, SEND appears to be held to a lower standard. This absence of monitoring is baffling – particularly given that there’s nearly £300m more SEND grant money raining down on the sector over the next two years.

More Money? Yes. Spent the same way? No

Local authorities argue – with increasing vigour – that there hasn’t been enough money pumped into the SEND system to meet demand. There’s a lot of truth to this – when the SEND reforms became law in 2014, LAs took on a great deal more statutory responsibility in the post-16 sector, and they were given hardly any additional money to get the job done.

It’s reasonable to argue that the SEND frontline is fundamentally underfunded. More cynically, it’s equally reasonable to argue that the SEND frontline has been underfunded for decades, that many LAs and schools have unlawfully suppressed demand throughout, and that much of the current furore about underfunding is simply because SEND is now causing unavoidable financial pain for other parts of education and children’s services.

The SEND frontline needs more funding. But the mechanisms to ensure that extra funding will be spent effectively, humanely or just plain lawfully are still broken. £600m has already been pumped into changing them, and £300m more is coming down the pipe.

By and large, this colossal sum has not delivered the change we needed. And no-one in a position seems particularly concerned that so much is being spent to so little effect.

*Infographics by Tania Tirraoro. Download the infographics together as a PDF here. All the infographic images are free to share, download and print, with SNJ credit.* 

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Matt Keer

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