Is the DfE’s SEND funding “safety valve” on a collision course with schools and families?

Illustration of safety valve LAs from text

It’s a strange time out there, and it’s a strange time in the world of SEND too. Some sort of big change is on its way in England -- via the SEND Review -- but no one outside the magic circle of system leaders has much of a clue about what is coming, when it’s coming, how it’s coming, or what impact it’ll have on our kids.

Behind the scenes though, there’s plenty going on – particularly on the funding side of SEND. 

Most people think there’s not enough money in the system at the moment to support children and young people with SEND. Others aren’t so interested in the amount of funding - they point instead to the dysfunctional way that SEND funding gets spent.

The Department for Education (DfE) think that there are ways that local authorities can spend SEND funding better – particularly at the more complex, high-needs end of SEND, where costs have ballooned in recent years. Yesterday, the DfE put out some information and case studies that try to show how local authorities can do just that.

The detail is dense, jargon-filled, dehumanised bureaucratese. But it’s important to know what it says, as it’ll have an impact on the decisions that local authorities make – and those decisions will, in turn, have an impact on our own children and young people.

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SEND Sustainability?

The key focus of this DfE paper is sustainability. Back in the autumn of 2019, the National Audit Office took a look at the English SEND system. The NAO assessed that “the system for supporting pupils with SEND is not, on current trends, financially sustainable.” 

The NAO assessed other things, too: they concluded that many pupils with SEND are not being supported effectively. But the thing that most bigwigs are concentrating on is financial sustainability.

Over the last few years, most local authorities have ended up spending much more money than they’ve been given by Whitehall to support children with high-needs SEND. 

The funding that LAs get from central government for high-needs SEND has gone up a lot in the last two years. The overall size of the ‘High Needs Block’ (the financial pot that supports high-needs SEND) is now £1.5 billion bigger than it was in 2019, a 25% increase. 

But for the most part, these hefty increases haven’t improved the LAs’ financial positions for high-needs SEND. We estimate that LAs have now collectively accumulated a High Needs Block deficit of well over £1 billion. And eventually, they’ll have to pay this back to the government.

The 3-point plan to fix the jam

The DfE realises that local authorities are in a financial jam, and they have a three-pronged plan to make SEND financially sustainable again. 

The full details of this plan aren’t available yet – probably because they’re not fleshed out - but it roughly goes like this:

  • More funding: The DfE can point to the big increases in the size of the High Needs Block between 2019 and 2021. They’ve also just announced that there’ll be a similarly-sized increase next year too, somewhere in the region of £780m – in all, nearly a 40% increase in the size of the High Needs Block over the last 3 years. TheDfE can also point to a big £300m investment this year in SEND capital funded, which will hopefully lead to more spaces and better equipment in the specialist school sector. Anything after that will depend on the outcome of an upcoming tussle with the Treasury.
  • System redesign: This is the SEND Review, which has been delayed yet again, and doesn’t look like it’s coming any time soon. However, it will almost certainly involve changes to the law and changes to the way in which SEND funding is allocated to councils and schools. But for the moment, it’s a black box.
  • Targeted financial intervention: When it came to implementing the 2014 SEND reforms, the DfE were memorably described as presiding serenely over chaos – but they watch local authority finances like hawks. They spent a lot of 2020 negotiating with the LA SEND services that are in deepest financial doo-doo, and in March they unveiled a new way to hike councils out of their pit – the ‘safety valve’ intervention scheme.

"Safety Valves" with strings attached

Five LAs have signed up to a ‘safety valve’ system as outlined in yesterday's publication and you can see what the agreements look like here. The DfE wants to roll these out to more LAs over the next few months and years. If you want to see who’s currently got one of these ‘safety valve’ agreements, and who might be next in line for one, check the box.

Basically, each LA that signs up to the scheme gets extra funding from the DfE, doled out over several years. In most cases, this extra funding is enough (or almost enough) to rub out the financial deficit that each LA has already racked up.

But the ‘safety valve’ deal comes with strings attached. In return, each LA has to agree to stay within budget over the medium-term, reduce or eliminate their deficit within four to five years, and manage their high needs funding in specific ways that the DfE require. 

A cash crash course round the corner?

What’s the DfE asking these LAs to do? A mix of things, many of which will put them on a collision course with schools and families. 

The DfE say that they have asked LAs “to focus on one mission statement: to develop plans to reform their high needs systems as quickly as possible to provide a good service within their available funding.” They don’t say whether LAs are currently providing a good service, or even a lawful service for that matter.

Either way, the DfE have identified “two principal goals” that they judge are “critical for the LAs’ ability to reach sustainable positions”:

  1. “appropriately managing demand for EHCPs, including assessment processes that are fit for purpose” 
  1. “use of appropriate and cost-effective provision. This includes ensuring mainstream schools are equipped and encouraged to meet needs where possible, whilst maintaining high standards for all pupils.”

Sometimes, LAs are being ordered to put systems in place that will allow them to predict need better. But mostly, it’s about reducing "demand" – and to the DfE, the meaning of ‘demand’ isn’t the same as what we as parents mean when we refer to our children’s needs.

The most common things that LAs are being asked to do in these ‘safety valve’ agreements are:

  • Improve SEND support in mainstream schools “to manage demand more effectively and reduce escalation of need;
  • “Manage demand” for EHCPs – including bearing down harder at each Annual Review to check whether an EHCP is still required;
  • Using fewer independent and non-maintained special school placements, using local provision wherever possible;
  • Increase early intervention, making more provision available to children on SEN Support;
  • ‘Reforming’ the offer to young people with SEND who are over the age of 16.

Each LA working under these “safety valve” agreements meets up quarterly with the DfE. If the LA hasn’t delivered on its part of the deal – or if wider circumstances change - then like Darth Vader on Bespin in the Empire Strikes Back, the DfE reserves the right to alter the deal. 

These “safety valve” agreements were published just four months ago – but the DfE are already claiming that they are working, and that they are already highly successful. They haven’t, however, offered any specific, verifiable evidence showing that these ‘safety valve’ agreements have already improved the lived experience for children and young people with SEND. Perhaps that’s yet to come. Or perhaps, that’s not the point.

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Case Studies for sustainability...

To back up their thinking, the DfE also published a series of 12 case studies, showing how local authorities are already making positive changes that are making their SEND finances sustainable. You can read these here – they cover everything from better strategic planning, to better early intervention, to ‘appropriate’ EHCP "demand management" and improved provision mapping.

Of these 12 case studies, only one provides specific, quantified and verifiable evidence of impact on finances. All of the LAs featured in these case studies ended up posting High Needs Block deficits in the 2020-21 financial year, some of them larger than the previous year. 

Some case studies talk about things that the LA plans to do, rather than things that the LA is currently doing. It’s hard to call these ‘case studies’ when the cases aren’t complete. When no-one can yet show how they’ve reduced spending without compromising outcomes for children and young people with SEND, they’re plans – not completed case studies.

Most of the others describe different ways of holding meetings, without obvious outcomes. Some inadvertently show a poverty of ambition – being “open and transparent” with stakeholders is not game-changing new practice, it’s the bare minimum anyone should expect.

There’s very little that’s new in these case studies. There are many local authorities who are already implementing these same changes, and they still haven’t been able to reduce their financial deficits.

And above all, none of these case studies provides specific, quantified, and verifiable evidence of impact on the lived experiences of children and young people with SEND. 

I’d love to be able to confirm that the Barnsley case study on early intervention is working, and that “the highest level of challenge is applied”. But as the LA has decided to withhold every single relevant board meeting paper from the public domain, that’s not possible. 

Top tip, lads: if you’ve decided to make your “SEND Engagement and Participation Strategy” paper a confidential document, withheld so the public can’t see it, your SEND Engagement and Participation Strategy is already failing.

So what difference will all this make to my child?

The DfE is investing heavily in better financial accountability for council SEND spending – but there is no sign that it is investing in better accountability for council SEND service operations. 

Financially, LAs are in a terrible position – but other than resorting to the law, there’s still no meaningful and timely way to ensure that an LA SEND service meets its statutory duties to your child. 

It doesn’t often look like it from the frontline, but LAs have hardly any policy tools that they can use to deal with the financial pressure. They get VIP bollockings for failure to meet their financial duties to government. By and large, they do not get VIP bollockings for failing to meet their statutory duties to children and young people with SEND, and some simply refuse to admit that they do fail, on an industrial scale.

And so, LAs will almost inevitably become even more reliant on shady operational practice to square the circle. That shady practice is nothing new – but the pressure to use it will increase, and there are signs that’s already happening. 

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The truth behind the headlines

Read the DfE case studies on sustainable financial practice, and you’ll see Leeds’s efforts to manage ‘demand’ for EHCPs held up as a model to follow. But talk to Leeds professionals, and you’ll hear a different story: there are Leeds SENCOs who say they’re being told that there is now a cap on the number of EHCPs that their school can have at any one time. That cap would be unlawful, and it’s impossible to believe that the LA doesn’t know that.

It’s all very well demanding that LAs introduce EHC needs assessment and EHCP processes that are “fit for purpose” – but if you look the other way when those “fit for purpose” processes turn out to be unlawful, then you’re exactly the sort of strategic leaders that our kids don’t need.

Good strategic leaders have a sound understanding of operational reality. They realise that there’s more to making and implementing change than PowerPoint, key performance indicators, and risk registers. They check what actually happens when they pull levers on a machine. They think about the things that aren’t supposed to happen when you pull the levers. Things that have happened before, and will definitely happen again. 

They don’t just listen to the people who operate and maintain the machine for them. They also listen – properly - to the people who are directly affected by what the machine does, and who get crushed when the machine malfunctions. 

There is very, very little sign that this sort of thinking is happening here.

And when they think about sustainability, good strategic leaders think about what they are trying to sustain, and whether they think the current level of performance is something worth sustaining. 

The SEND system needs more money to operate effectively, and it needs to spend it better. But its leaders cannot pretend that its current level of performance is something to be sustained. That would be an insult not just to the children and young people that it is supposed to support, but also to the families and frontline professionals who live, breathe, and suffer its consequences. We’ve had enough of decision-makers who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

Which LAs have High-Needs “Safety Valve” Funding Agreements?

LAs already with one:

  • Bury
  • Hammersmith & Fulham
  • Kingston-upon-Thames
  • Richmond-upon-Thames
  • Stoke-on-Trent

LAs most likely to be pressured into getting one*:

  • Bexley
  • Cumbria
  • Devon
  • Dorset
  • Haringey
  • Hillingdon
  • Merton
  • Rotherham
  • Salford
  • Surrey
  • South Gloucestershire
  • Torbay
  • City of York

*based on % size of cumulative DSG deficit in March 2021

If you want to read further comments from Matt on this subject read his Twitter thread

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