Battle of The Bands: The rise of ‘banding’ for funding SEND

Battle of The Bands: The rise of 'banding' for funding SEND

Is your child getting an EHCP? Have you talked to your school about SEND support recently? Has your LA tried to interest you in one of its awkwardly-named “My Plans”? If so, then there’s a very good chance that you’ll have come across people talking about ‘banding.’

If no-one’s explained to you what banding is, how it’s done, why it matters, when it matters – and why it shouldn’t matter at all – then read on….

What is banding?

Banding refers to a policy that a local authority (LA) has put together to dish out “top-up” resources for SEND from its education funding pots – normally from the pot known as the High Needs Block.

SEND funding is ridiculously complex – if you have a taste for serious pain, then read this, but there’s also a slightly easier-to-digest explanation from IPSEA too.

Three ‘elements’ make up SEND funding in mainstream. In theory, the first two ‘elements’ are supposed to be enough to meet most pupils’ special educational needs - although many head teachers, SENCos and school business managers would beg to differ.  If the school needs more resources than this, then they can request a third element – a ‘top-up’ - from the LA’s High Needs Block.

Specialist SEND provision normally gets some or all of its initial wedge of funding straight out of the High Needs Block. If they need more – and most do - then they get extra ‘top-up’ funding, again out of the High Needs Block.

This ‘top-up’ funding isn’t just for children who have an EHCP – schools can also apply for it for pupils on SEN Support.

I’ve simplified things a lot, because I don’t want to make people lose the will to live - but it’s the ‘top-up’ third element that matters most when you look at banding.

Clear so far? Fabulous.

The LA then has to work out how it’s going to allocate its ‘top-up’ funding, usually consulting a local ‘schools forum’ in the process. And this is where the banding comes in.

  • Some LAs allocate their ‘top-up’ funding based on the individual needs of a pupil, and what provision is required to meet the individual pupil’s need. These LAs don’t use banding (or at least, they aren’t admitting to it).
  • Most LAs though allocate ‘top-up’ funds according to criteria that they’ve designed themselves. Usually, the LA will look at each case, run it through their in-house criteria, and they then dole out ‘top-up’ funding based on these criteria, using a set of bands or points that vary in financial value.
  • In theory, the higher the need, the higher the band, and the higher the value of the top-up funding that flows from the LA. So Band 1 might be worth £2,000, Band 2 might be worth £5,000, Band 3 might be worth £7,500, and so on.

How do the LAs work out the criteria?

Well, this is SEND, so there is no national standard - most LAs have their own in-house recipes.

Some LAs use a crude system based on teaching assistant hours. Others use more complicated points-based systems that work through a list of factors specific to the type of SEND in question. Other LAs deploy web-based matrix systems that are almost entirely opaque in operation and execution.

Either way, there’s a very good chance that your local authority uses banding in some shape or form. Last month, I asked LAs whether they use banding: nine out of ten who answered said they did. You can see from the maps below if your LA is one of them.

Map showing all but Devon, Sheffield, Kent, W. Sussex, St Helens, Cambridgeshire & Oxon use banding No response from Somerset or Warrington
Click to enlarge

Click here to see an interactive version of the map above

London boroughs showing all areas use banding but Harrow, Enfield, Kenstn & Chelsea, Hammersmth & Fulham, Westminster, Lambeth. No response from Hounslow, Lewisham, Hackney, City of London
Click to enlarge

Click here to see an interactive version of this

Is banding unlawful?

Strictly speaking, no. LAs are not acting unlawfully just by putting banding information in an EHCP. But it’s irrelevant for the strict legal purpose of the Plan. Check this blog from legal firm Boyes Turner for more. It would be just as lawful – and just as pointless - to shove Klingon poetry into the EHCP too.

Where things start to get dodgy though is when LAs decide to put banding information into an EHCP instead of specific detail on SEND provision.

The 2015 SEND Code of Practice, paragraph 9.69 clearly says that “provision must be detailed and specific, and should normally be quantified.” Putting a band (or a sum of money that the band attracts) in Section F of an EHCP isn’t going to be enough by itself.

If an LA tries to argue that it doesn’t need to detail, specify and (where appropriate) quantify SEND provision in Section F of an EHCP because they’ve put banding & funding detail there, then the LA is mistaken. Or more probably, after six years & over £500m spent on SEND reform implementation, the LA is lying. Either way, it’s a myth – a myth that SEND advocates are trying to slay.

Is banding helpful?

From the LA point of view, yes – it simplifies and streamlines the task of parcelling out scarce ‘top-up’ funding. It’s also worth reading this blog from SEND research specialist Rob Webster, suggesting that intelligently-applied, banding could have some potential benefits for flexibility and quality of provision.

But from the point of view of the family, there are reasons why relying on banded funding alone might be a bad idea.

The main issue is this: the banding values, and the banding itself, are just policies. What happens if the LA changes the policies?

For example, what happens if the LA sets Band B at £5,000 this year, and then knocks it down to £4,000 next year? What happens if Band C is set up to provide 15 hours of 1:1 support this year, and only 8 hours of 1:1 support next year?

That sounds like it might be a real problem. But is it? After all, LAs might move the banding upwards as well as downwards. How many LAs are actually fiddling around with their banding, and who benefits & loses if they do?

Inspector K investigates...

It seemed like something worth investigating. So I asked 150 LAs whether they used banding – and if so, what changes they had made to banding over the last few years. Here’s what they said:

  • 129 out of 143 LAs said they use a banding or matrix system to parcel out ‘top-up’ funds to mainstream and/or specialist school provision;
  • Of these 129 LAs, 72 of them have made no change at all to their banding values over the last 3 years;
  • 20 LAs have increased the value of at least some of their bands, whilst keeping the others steady;
  • 9 LAs have made mixed changes to their banding values – raising a few values, but also lowering a few too;
  • …and 14 LAs have quietly lowered the value of some, most or all of their bands, without increasing the value of any of them. Many of these are small-scale cuts of 1%-3%, but some LAs have cut banding values much more sharply than this, by 15-25% in some cases.

Want to know the picture in your LA? See the map below for a guide.

Value changed - click through to the interactive version at the link below to speak the names
Click to enlarge

Click here to see the interactive version

That might sound like a reasonably balanced picture: most bands static, a few up, a few down, but generally speaking, business as usual. Well, that’s not how it’s working out in reality – because the costs of keeping SEND provision going have gone up a fair bit over the last few years.

There’s obvious stuff, like the cost of equipment going up – but there’s less obvious stuff going on under the bonnet too. Even though staff wages haven’t gone up by much, teachers & support staff now cost more to employ than they did a few years ago.

Steady bands = real world cut

All this has an impact on SEND costs – and what it means is that just keeping the bands steady over the years actually amounts to a real-terms cut.

Here’s an example:

  • Let’s say your child got an EHCP back in 2015, and let’s say that the LA ‘accidentally’ failed to write detailed, specified and quantified provision into Section F of the EHCP.
  • Let’s say that this LA allocated Band 2 top-up funding of £5,000 for this EHCP, and let’s say that this funding was just about enough to cover the costs provision back in 2015.
  • It’s the back end of 2017 now. Costs have risen, but the LA hasn’t changed the band value or the band criteria. The £5,000 Band 2 funding that just about met need back in 2015 isn’t enough to do the job anymore - and the chances are that you and the school have a problem.

But some band values are on the rise in a few LAs, right? That’s true, and it’s better than nothing – but in most cases, the rises just aren’t enough to cover the extra costs that have built up. The SEND professionals I spoke to when researching this piece reckoned that their costs have gone up by around 5-10% over the last three years, dependent on setting.

Going back to our 129 LAs, how many of them have bumped up the value of all their ‘top-up’ bands by enough to reflect the rise in costs over recent years?

Four. That’s right, four, out of 129.

In at least 125 other LAs, some, most, or all schools receiving banded ‘top-up’ provision are essentially having to deliver the same support with less real-terms funding.

Why does this matter?

If your child’s SEND provision relies on high-needs ‘top-up’ funding, then their school is very likely to be getting it via a system of banding. And if your child has been kept on the same funding band for years, then it is very likely that their school is getting less real-terms funding for your child than they used to get.

And even with the best will in the world, if it takes funding to make your child’s SEND provision work well, then there’s going to be an impact if your child’s provision is simply listed as a banded sum of money. It’s likely to mean that their staff will be stretched more thinly. It’s likely to mean that they won’t be able to procure as much specialist kit and expertise to support learning.

Money isn’t everything – check this blog from a SEND parent for a great example of the difference that an inclusive culture can make.

But in many cases, money matters – and this is where a proper EHCP counts. An EHCP alone isn’t going to safeguard your child from these pressures unless its provision is detailed, specified and quantified where it needs to be quantified.

Some LAs have enthusiastically hawked non-statutory “My Plan” documents as a quick, flexible and cheap way of getting support in place. They’re flexible for a reason, and that reason isn’t always good for the child. If the LA drops the banding values that support these plans, there’s virtually no statutory protection.

What’s coming down the tracks?

It’s slightly soul-sapping going through SEND finance stuff – I haven’t even touched on several other major SEND cost pressures that schools are facing. If you’ve got an appetite for this stuff (and God help you if you have), then you can find an excellent short guide to these problems here from special school stalwart Jarlath O’Brien.

The outlook for SEN funding is bleak. LAs will tell you that SEND money is tight. It’s entirely right to query what they do with this funding and how effectively they deploy it – but they aren’t always lying about the basic resource problem. The High Needs Block is where banded top-up funding comes from - and in most LAs, this Block is already at meltdown, or close to it.

Banding isn’t going away any time soon – and you can expect to see LAs using it more and more as a means of curbing high-needs spending. One London LA plans to cut high-needs top-up spending by 5% ; it’s also looking to reshape its banding system, and that’s no coincidence. Other LAs have abruptly pulled the rug on existing high-needs funding arrangements, and several other LAs told me they planned to rejig their banding structure in the coming months. You can find some ominous-looking examples coming together here and here.

Parents and schools will need to watch very carefully how these plans shape up. But in the meantime, relying on banding alone is a mug’s game.

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Matt Keer
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Matt Keer

Matt Keer is the parent of two deaf children. He had to take his LA to the SEND Tribunal, to get the educational provision his children needed. It was a bruising time. In an blog on the NDCS campaign site, he said, "We got there in the end, as a family. We went through Tribunal, some of us broke briefly, but we mended ourselves and the boys finally – finally – now have a full shot at life. It was worth it – but it should have been allowed to be this way."
Matt has dug deep to highlight taxpayer funds paid by local authorities to the law firm in the BS Twitter Storm. He's great at finding and analysing obscure data SEND departments would rather you didn't know about.
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  • paul

    A really interesting article. I am a private training provider, and I have a learner who unfortunately came under these “banding” rules for our Local Authority. Initially there was Element 1, Element 2 and a banding of “severe” for Element 3 (High Needs Top Up). Unfortunately for this particular learner the amount of funding the Local Authority was not able to meet the needs of Section F, in fact the total available funding equated to only 50% of what the learner needed. I conveyed and explained this to the learners parent, who in turn engaged the help of a solicitor who specialises in EHCP. Basically the legal advice was that the Local Authority “banding” was irrelevant, and that the LA had a legal obligation under Section 42 of the Children and Family Act 2014. The parent was advised to write to the LA explaining this, and giving them five working days to respond. The parent was also advised to advise the LA to seek legal advice. The next stage would have been to apply for a Judicial Review, to which the solicitor had a Barrister that would have been all ready to take on the case. Needless to say, the LA took legal advice, and is now funding the EHCP fully, rather than through a system of banding.

    Unfortunately there are pressures on the LA budgets, but at the same time there are young people out there that are being failed by the system by the LA not providing enough funding to ensure Section F can be provided for fully. This is not the fault of the learner, and the LA needs to accept their responsibilities. At the same time, I have seen the banding system work well. I think the lesson to be learnt is that each learner is different, they each have different needs and each Section F of each plan is different. This means that you cannot just assume learners are the same, and have similar needs, and with this in mind, each learner really needs to be assessed as an individual.