On Friday, we took a look at the Department for Education’s Delivering Better Value in SEND financial intervention programme. Fifty-five of England’s 152 local authorities are taking part in DBV – you can see which LAs are involved on this map at the bottom of part one.
The DBV programme started last summer. It’s got some good aspects to it, but flaws too. And the main flaw in DBV stems from what the customer wants, and what the customer is trying to achieve. That’s what we’re going to look at in this follow-up post.
The customer isn’t always right
The customer for the DBV programme is the Department for Education (DfE). In June 2022, they signed a two-year, £19.5m contract with a consultancy firm, Newton Europe, to deliver the bulk of the programme.
The DfE made it pretty clear to Newton Europe what they wanted the DBV programme to achieve. Their requirements have shaped the DBV programme’s outputs in ways that’ll mean trouble for families and schools on the SEND frontline. How do we know what the DfE want from DBV? It’s in the contract, which you can find here.
As ever, the DfE’s contract with its supplier is a model of clearly defined needs and specified, quantified provision. To be cynical, it’s the sort of plan that they want to see a lot less of when applied to actual children and young people with SEND.
The DBV contract shows that the programme is divided into two phases.
- Phase 1 is the activity that we covered in our first post. Newton Europe analyses financial data, conducts root cause analysis, and works with the LAs to find ‘opportunities’ to reduce spending whilst improving or sustaining outcomes.
- Phase 2 of the DBV programme covers the implementation of those ‘opportunities.’ This implementation is linked to each LA’s DSG Management Plan. This is the financial plan that each LA in the red has to put together to show the DfE how it’ll get rid of its education funding deficit, and how it’s going avoid running up deficits in the future. This bit of the DBV contract has specific targets that “the Parties” (i.e, the Department for Education and Newton Europe) are working towards. So what do they want to achieve?
“It is the intention of the Parties that the DSG management plans, once implemented in Phase 2 and beyond will help achieve the following impacts:
From the DBV Contract
- Controlling spending by reducing EHCP growth, “targeting at least a 20% reduction in new EHCPs issued.”
- Reducing exclusions and improving mainstream inclusion, “targeting at least a 20% reduction in placements into Independent schools and 2% reduction in placements in special schools.”
- “Parent and child satisfaction with the SEN services being provided” – we assume they mean improving it, but there’s no actual target or intended direction of travel given here.”
Those targets are pretty clear. They aren’t legally binding within the contract: the DfE cannot force Newton Europe to make this happen, and Newton Europe has no direct power to make it happen, only indirect influence through its work on the DBV programme.
The key thing here is that this is the intended direction of travel. This is the output that the DfE want from DBV, and these are the strategic targets that DfE want to achieve.
20% cuts to EHCPs in black and white
The Observer newspaper covered this story at the weekend with input from SNJ. They spoke to the DfE about the targets. The DfE told them that they were indicative targets only, the targets had not been communicated to LAs, and that the DfE would naturally expect the number of EHCPs issued to drop as children’s needs were met earlier. That’s an enterprising explanation. These are remarkably specific targets, and they’ve been included within a formal contract that doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it.
It’s also surprising to see that LAs and parent carers have not been informed, given what the DfE’s SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan says about the importance of co-production in improving SEND services.
If you’re optimistic, you could look at these targets with hope: they might be a natural byproduct of the improvements to the SEND system that are on their way. At some point. Maybe. Unfortunately, the measurement data that the DfE has chosen to check progress against these targets doesn’t support that.
This part of the contract doesn’t check, for example, whether the right provision is in place to support kids without an EHCP: it just checks the number of new EHCPs, and the impact on the financial bottom line. Neither does it check whether mainstream inclusion is actually happening and working well: it just measures attendance, and the proportion of kids with EHCPs placed in mainstream schools.
Measuring the targets, not the methods
What they are measuring—the key performance indicators—in bureaucrat-speak, only tracks whether the targets are met. They don’t track how the targets are met. And when LAs are measured like this, with the SEND system’s level of accountability, we all know how they tend to respond: unlawfully.
When you look at the ‘opportunities’ that the DBV programme identifies for cost savings in each LA, they’re cleanly consistent with the DfE’s stated remit.
- More needs met without EHCPs.
- Opting more for mainstream rather than special school placements, or mainstream units rather than special.
- Using the EHCP annual review process to cease plans more often.
- Nudging more post-16 young people with SEND off EHCPs and into the world of work.
Within the DBV ‘opportunities,’ the absence of recommendations to place children in special schools or post-16 is particularly striking. I saw no recommendations to move children from independent and non-maintained special schools (INMSS) into state special. Instead, the recommendations for INMSS kicked kids down to mainstream units, or—insanely—just placing them in vanilla mainstream. You won’t find many children and young people currently at independent and non-maintained special schools who haven’t already crashed and burned at least once in a mainstream setting.
What has the DfE said on the record and EHCP cuts?
It looks like the DfE has some explaining to do. Not least, it looks like they have some explaining to do to Parliament’s Education Select Committee.
Back in May, the Committee asked Claire Coutinho (the now-former DfE Minister for Children) and a senior DfE civil servant about progress with the SEND and AP Improvement Plan. You can find a transcript of this oral evidence session here.
In this session, the DfE senior civil servant explained some of the thinking behind the Plan:
“…if we make that pincer movement, if you like, between improving mainstream provision and improving what is on offer in specialist, you would start to see a decrease in the need for EHCPs. That should be a sign of the health of the system, but we were not projecting to a particular target as such.” (our emphasis)
The Chair of the Committee, Robin Walker, asked the following question:
“It would probably be sensible not to target a specific reduction in EHCPs, given that that is the long-term trend that we have seen, but I think that there is certainly a concern and a suspicion out there in the sector that part of the motivation behind the plan is to effectively ration EHCPs. Can you categorically say that that is not—”
Claire Coutinho then stated, as she did in our podcast with Renata and Tania:
“That is absolutely not what we are trying to do.”
Frankly, it’s a hell of a challenge to square that oral evidence – given to Parliament, remember - with the DfE’s DBV programme contract, which was nailed down 11 months before this evidence session, and which most certainly does contain very specific targets and demand suppression objectives.
It’s also pretty difficult to square with some of the information given by DfE reps to SEND sector stakeholders. Tania’s attended some of these meetings – this is what she has to say…
Tania’s viewpoint on the DBV debacle: Unintended consequences make uncomfortable bedfellows
Last week I attended a meeting of the Council for Disabled Children, and a presentation was given by a long-time DfE SEND official, updating the latest happenings of the Government’s SEND Change Programme. As we had already been hearing families teIl us about LAs trying to remove EHCPs, I made a note when he said: “We are not telling LAs to reduce EHCPs or end them early.”
As I said in the Observer article, either the DfE’s left hand doesn't know what its right hand is doing, or someone is telling lies to families (and to us all). What do we make of this? Indeed, it’s clearly, as Matt outlines, a matter for Robin Walker MP, and the Education Select Committee he chairs who were told the same thing. But also, we need the new SEND Minister, David Johnston, to look at this contract and the public statements that have been made and tell us again:
- Is the DfE, or is it not, targeting a 20% cut in EHCPs.
- Is the DfE, or is it not, aiming to pull children out of independent SEND placements where they are settled, and insert them back into mainstream schools (from where they have most likely already crashed and burned, often causing significant trauma and mental health problems?)
- Why is the DfE relying on its new buzz-phrase of “Ordinarily Available Provision” in mainstream schools to try to meet the needs of children with significant SEND, when schools have inadequate resources and training to provide or implement such reasonable adjustments? While it’s true the Universal SEND Services programme is aiming to upskill school staff, this is at an early stage. The Initial Teacher Training framework still has a woefully inadequate amount of SEND training and a review is not yet underway.
- While the DfE says it will “ensure LAs comply with the law”. But how can it do this when it is the one telling them to take action to cut EHCPs? If a child’s needs require the provision of an EHC plan, according to the Children and Families Act 2014, under what remit will an LA refuse one or remove one? As Matt says - it can only be an unlawful one.
A recent report from an expert legal panel called for LAs to work harder at getting decisions right first time to help reduce appeals. But what incentives do LAs have to do this when they've already signed up for cash bailouts to a Government contract that specifies they must cut EHCPs?
But the law hasn’t changed. Disabled children haven’t miraculously shed their SEND needs. Indeed, post-pandemic, needs are only increasing. Schools SEND funding to provide said “ordinarily available provision” is stuck at 2008 levels (a massive real terms cut), while school staff are leaving before the buildings crumble on their heads.
My advice that I hope you will share with other parents: Any parent whose child is refused a statutory assessment or an Education, Health and Care Plan, or whose LA is telling them their young person no longer needs their EHCP, MUST dig in their heels and appeal.
For DBV local authorities, the number of decisions made without regard to legal compliance is only going to rise as they struggle to meet their DfE targets. 96% of appeals to the SEND tribunal already prevail. I predict the numbers and percentage of families appealing and succeeding will also rise, perhaps exponentially. The DfE may well then see that the law of unintended consequences, (something the civil service apparently trains for) along with a horde of angry parents, will be around to bite them on the bum.
A thread from Matt
- Miracles and magic: Delivering Better Value in SEND. But better value for whom?
- What’s new with the government’s SEND Change Programme?
- What’s new with the government’s SEND Change Programme?
- Uncovering the origin of the evil EHCP ‘Golden Ticket’ Narrative
- 63% of teachers say their school’s insufficient support for children with SEND is a barrier to pupil learning
- EHCPs in England in 2023. More plans but only half on time—and more efforts to take them away. Plus our annual LA Hall of Shame
- How does the Government intend to fund its new SEND Improvement plan?
- How does the the SEND Improvement Plan intend to create more accountability?
- Serially flawed, frequently unlawful: DfE-ordered SEND “Rapid Improvements” still barely visible in England’s biggest council
- Why the DfE’s SEND Adviser,, Tony McArdle, is wrong, wrong, wrong: Matt’s Director’s Cut
- It’s time to end the “double impact” of poor experiences at the intersectionality between Race and SEND: A Call to Action!
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