How does the Government intend to fund its new SEND Improvement plan?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve covered some of the main features of the Department for Education’s (DfE) SEND & Alternative Provision Improvement Plan: what it means for accountability, what the plan’s National Standards are all about, and what the Plan means for young people with SEND.

Our previous Improvement Plan articles have mostly talked about things that aren’t happening, or at least that aren’t happening yet. This post talks about SEND funding – where nothing’s changing and a lot’s changing, all at the same time.

Funding: the DfE’s number one risk

In the 2022 SEND & AP Green Paper, the DfE identified three main problems with the SEND system. In summary:

  1. The system doesn’t deliver good outcomes often enough,
  2. the system is too adversarial, and
  3. the system fails to achieve value for money, to the point where it’s becoming financially unsustainable.

Of these three problems, the DfE is most concerned about the last one – the money.

It’s always about money

How do we know that? Well, the DfE publishes an annual report, and that report contains a corporate risk register. Corporate risk registers are some of the dullest reading you’ll find anywhere – but they’re reliable guides to what organisations really worry about.

In the DfE risk register, ‘overspending’ on SEND is listed as one of six principal risks. Not the failure to deliver dependably decent outcomes for children and young people with SEND. Not the mind-bending bureaucracy that’s a part of almost every interaction with the SEND system.

It’s the money - in the DfE’s words, the risk that:

“in the medium term (2-5 years) high needs [SEND] costs continue to increase significantly more than available funding. This results in the SEND and AP system becoming unsustainable and threatening the overall financial stability of LAs.”

Dedpartment for Education

We might not like it, but that’s what the Government cares about most here.

So what does the SEND & AP Improvement Plan have to say about funding?

What’s in the Plan, and what’s not in the Plan?

The Improvement Plan talks about some of the things that the government has already done regarding SEND funding. The DfE says – accurately – that by April 2023, it will have increased funding for high-needs SEND by over 50% in four years. It says – again, accurately - that the government has set aside £2.6 billion to add new specialist provision to schools from 2022 to 2025.

However, the Plan also gives some really important SEND funding issues a severe ignoring. The Plan doesn’t directly address two key problems in mainstream schools:

  1. the accountability of the school budget that’s ‘notionally’ for SEND, and
  2. the suitability of a hazy threshold at which a school is expected to use its own resources to fund SEND support. This guidance – very old, and widely abused by LAs – advises a figure of up to £6,000 per pupil.

The Plan doesn’t really touch either of these issues, pointing to a consultation that ran last year, and that the DfE should be responding to shortly.

Additionally, the Plan doesn’t address what – if anything – is going to happen to the base funding for special school places. This base cost has been £10,000 since 2013, and inflation has ravaged its value.

Neither is there anything substantive in the Plan on either Early Years or Post-16 SEND funding – just a pledge to work with both sectors to come up with something in the future. And if you were hoping for a commitment in this Plan from anyone to fund health and social care provision for disabled children adequately, you’ll be disappointed.

So does the Plan have an answer to anything about funding? Yes, in some areas.

A closer look at funding commitments

The Plan puts forward a new funding model for alternative provision. We’re not going to talk about that in this article, it’ll be covered in a separate AP article that’s on its way soon.

The Plan also talks about the future of banded funding. This is the main way that local authorities funnel extra high-needs funding to schools – if you want to know more about how it works and doesn’t work, this article and this article here on SNJ have you covered.

In the green paper, the DfE proposed replacing home-grown LA banded funding systems with a unified, central system – one that would also include bands and tariffs for the non-maintained and independent special sectors. That’s still the plan – but it’s not going to be happening any time soon. The DfE has decided that this fiendishly complex funding reform would be better done after they’ve created the National Standards for SEND.

That’s a sensible way round to do things, but as the National Standards aren’t due to be in full effect until some time after 2025, it’s way, way off in the distance – if it ever gets taken forward at all by the next government.

Safety Valves & Delivering Better Value: the real SEND Improvement Plan?

If this sounds like a whole barrel-load of ifs, maybes, and foot-dragging, that’s understandable – but it’s not the whole story. Things are already happening in the background. Things designed to put a whole lot more pressure on schools and local authorities to get better value out of SEND spending. Things designed by accountants and consultants who, on the whole, have no idea or interest in how to value the life chances of children and young people with SEND.

What we’re talking about here is a wide-ranging programme of financial intervention to bail out and rein in local authority spending on SEND. This programme has been underway since 2020, but it’s massively expanded in the last year.

Right now, with so much else that was in the green paper either being road-tested or put on the back-burner, this financial programme effectively is the SEND and AP Improvement Plan.

Most LAs are now signed up to this programme, and it comes in two flavours:

  • Safety Valve – this scheme offers the most cash-strapped LAs some relief from their SEND financial burdens, with strings attached: the LA has to stick to a specific plan that changes the way they run their SEND services, with exacting financial accountability applied if they don’t. 34 LAs are currently part of this scheme, with one other LA possibly still in negotiations. You can find the agreements here.
  • Delivering Better Value – a lighter-touch programme, where the LA invites in a team of accountants and consultants: they pore over data, talk to local stakeholders, and suggest ways that the LA can get more for less with its SEND spending. Under DBV, the LA can apply for small-scale grants to test ideas out – but by and large, the LA has to get itself out of its financial situation. We think 54 LAs are currently part of the DBV scheme.

See the image below or check the interactive version to see whether your LA is part of one of these schemes, or head to the bottom of the article for a list.

Map shows where LAs are having financial intervention — the interactive version is more accessible
© Matt Keer/SNJ

Still focusing on the wrong goals

The policies that the DfE’s financial intervention programme is trying to instil in LAs are the same ideas that propel the SEND & AP Implementation Plan, and they have saving money as their primary goal. Simplified, these are:

  • Fewer children and young people requiring EHCPs.
  • More children and young people ‘stepped down’ from specialist support.
  • Fewer children and young people in independent special schools.
  • More children and young people in mainstream schools instead of specialist provision.
  • More young adults with SEND moved out of education and into EHCP-free employment.  
  • Standardised, usually lower levels of ‘top-up’ funding.

There are very clear tensions between implementing these financial intervention plans and SEND law as it stands now, and we’ve reported on these tensions before.

The most recent Safety Valve agreements – on paper – attempt to reconcile some of these tensions, by making it a bit clearer about how the changes are supposed to be achieved.

For example, rather than just being told to reduce reliance on independent special school placements, some LAs are now being told to make this happen through an increase in state special school capacity. Rather than just being told to reduce the number of EHCPs, LAs are now being told to increase early intervention and mainstream support, to create the conditions that should lead to fewer pupils needing an EHCP.

That’s good to see. But the key issue is what happens when these intricate plans meet reality.

When reality wrecks the vision

It can take years to add new state special school capacity. Inflation and delays to construction mean that new specialist placements often arrive later than expected, and cost more to run than expected. There’s also currently a chronic shortage of specialist teachers and therapists in many local areas. And the DfE want action to lower costs right now.

If the promised new specialist capacity doesn’t arrive on time and costs more than it was supposed to, if resource-strapped mainstream schools can’t (or won’t) do any more, then what happens? Who bears the risk?

If there aren’t enough resources available to both support early intervention and to meet the needs of children and young people who are already in the local SEND system, who bears the risk?

Up until now, all the way down the line, it’s been children and young people with SEND (and those on the frontline supporting them) who’ve borne the real risk. The risk that affects lives, rather than numbers on a spreadsheet. And this is unlikely to change.

When problems have emerged with the Safety Valve agreements that are already in place, there’s been very little sign thus far that the DfE’s accountants have been willing to introduce more flexibility into these agreements. And there’s still plenty of imprecise language in the Safety Valve agreements to set off warning bells.

Warning bells are chiming

A repeated requirement for ‘robust’ decision-making around EHC needs assessments and EHCP annual reviews, for example, is unlikely to mean that the accountants want better-evidenced decisions that comply with statutory duties. It’s much more likely to mean that they want to see more EHCNA requests refused, and more plans ceased—despite the fact that over 90% of these decisions already get conceded or overturned when they put through a SENDIST appeal.

It’s also striking that while many of these agreements require more specialist support aimed at early intervention, a lot of this support is advisory rather than directly delivered. And very few of these agreements demand that LAs put more specialist support in place–they just deploy them differently.

So to make agreements work, the chances are high that some specialist support will simply be stripped from high-needs pupils–particularly from those children who face being moved out of the independent special school sector, where therapies typically come in-house as part of the package. There’s no sign that therapy budget-holders are preparing to provide extra resource to state special schools to make this change work.

When reform = cuts

Requirements to reform banded funding models to make them ‘fairer’ has, so far, simply led to cuts. Cuts so deep that in at least one case, a mainstream school in South Gloucestershire has refused to continue with a locally-valued autism access centre past 2024, because it can’t make it work financially.

This school is unlikely to be the last to take this path. The DfE’s accountants appear to be trying to standardise funding arrangements between statistical neighbours, using comparators that, after years of local funding bodges, now have little-to-nothing to do with the actual cost of meeting need. Basically, the calculations sit atop on a squishy bedrock of bullsh*t.

What about the Delivering Better Value scheme? These are much smaller-scale efforts. Many of the DBV projects are still in their infancy, but the small number that have so far been published look sensible: projects to improve pooling of knowledge and mutual support in mainstream, for example.

But projects like these probably aren’t enough to sort out the huge funding problems that many LAs in the DBV scheme face.

Between them, the 54 LAs in the DBV scheme already have a combined Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) funding deficit of roughly £600m. Once the 2022-23 financial year closes next week, these LAs will probably be adding around £230m more to that deficit pile. The Department for Education wants all that money back – and these are only some of the LAs grappling with big deficits.

Longer-term, the increases in high-needs funding that have been pumped into the system over the last four years are set to slow—dramatically so—from 2024 onwards. Local authorities are being told to plan for increases of 3%-5% for the next few years. From the DfE’s perspective, the funding party’s over. At the front line, few of us could tell that it had even started.

Local Authorities with Safety Valve Agreements

As of March 29 2023

  • Barnsley
  • Bath & NE Somerset
  • Bexley
  • Blackpool
  • Bolton
  • Bury
  • Cambridgeshire
  • Croydon
  • Darlington
  • Dorset
  • Hammersmith & Fulham
  • Haringey
  • Hillingdon
  • Hounslow
  • Isle of Wight
  • Kent
  • Kingston-upon-Thames
  • Kirklees
  • Medway
  • Merton
  • Norfolk
  • North Somerset
  • North Tyneside
  • Richmond-upon-Thames
  • Rotherham
  • Salford
  • Slough
  • South Gloucestershire
  • Southwark
  • Stoke-on-Trent
  • Surrey
  • Torbay
  • Wokingham
  • York

Local Authorities in the Delivering Better Value Scheme

As of March 29 2023

  • Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole
  • Bracknell Forest
  • Brent
  • Bristol, City of
  • Buckinghamshire
  • Cheshire East
  • Cornwall
  • County Durham
  • Cumbria
  • Doncaster
  • Dudley
  • East Riding of Yorkshire
  • Enfield
  • Gloucestershire
  • Hackney
  • Halton
  • Hampshire
  • Havering
  • Kensington and Chelsea
  • Kingston upon Hull, City of
  • Leicestershire
  • Lewisham
  • Middlesbrough
  • Newham
  • North East Lincolnshire
  • North Yorkshire
  • Oldham
  • Oxfordshire
  • Reading
  • Redcar and Cleveland
  • Rochdale
  • Rutland
  • Sefton
  • Solihull
  • Somerset
  • South Tyneside
  • Southampton
  • St. Helens
  • Stockport
  • Stockton-on-Tees
  • Suffolk
  • Sunderland
  • Swindon
  • Tameside
  • Thurrock
  • Tower Hamlets
  • Warrington
  • Warwickshire
  • West Berkshire
  • West Sussex
  • Wiltshire
  • Windsor and Maidenhead
  • Wirral
  • Worcestershire

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Matt Keer

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