“Impowering” the future of SEND where parents and SENCOs just need to be less “demanding”

As the SEND Review Green Paper edges closer - maybe within a week - we decided to look into something that lots of parents have been talking about, not least during the webinar we facilitated with Minister Will Quince last week. A couple of weeks ago, a story ran in the education newspaper Schools Week about consultant-led cost cutting in SEND. What’s occurring, why’s it happening, and is it anything to worry about?

The story covered a SEND change programme that’s been happening in Lincolnshire. That LA’s leaders were concerned that their SEND services were running out of financial road, so they commissioned a public sector consultancy firm – IMPOWER – to see whether things could be done differently.

Lincolnshire and IMPOWER made changes between 2019 and 2021, and IMPOWER wrote the results up as a case study and marketing pitch on their website. You can find the pitch here, modestly titled “Transforming the lives of children with SEND in Lincolnshire.”

So what’s going on here? Is it working, and why are people bothered?

Those "demanding parents"

According to IMPOWER, the main problem in SEND is "demand". Apparently, too many parents want their kids to have specialist support – particularly statutory support, delivered via an EHCP. Too many parents want kids placed in special schools, rather than mainstream. (That's those "affluent" middle classes again)

IMPOWER argue that there’s not a lot of evidence this leads to better outcomes for kids, that there’s not enough money in the system to keep things going this way, and that one of the main things that’s not happening because of this is early intervention.

IMPOWER say they’re big on "behavioural science". From this and their other case studies, it’s clear IMPOWER believe that parents need to make different and better decisions, and that they need to be nudged into doing that. The ‘nudging’ bit appears to be IMPOWER’s secret sauce. Basically, it’s parents’ and mainstream schools’ behaviour that needs to be changed, not so much LAs’.

IMPOWER argue that:

“the most important step to take across a High Needs system is changing the behaviours which create dependence on specialist support (which is usually higher cost)” 

To take this step successfully, IMPOWER say that several things need to happen. One of the main things is working collaboratively with families and frontline professionals. The other is to: 

“reset parents’ and professionals’ expectations around support, building confidence in early intervention and challenging the narrative of the Educational Health and Care Plan (EHCP) as the ‘golden ticket’”

"Reset expectations"? Sorry, what?

I asked IMPOWER what this meant*. What were the original expectations, what were they ‘reset’ to, and which professionals were they talking about—-school staff, LA staff, health, or all of them? Who exactly was pushing the ‘golden ticket’ narrative, and why? How compatible were the ‘reset expectations’ with statutory duty?

We await a response to our questions, sent to IMPOWER on 24th February.*

Early intervention, or prompt diversion?

One of the things that’s key to IMPOWER’s approach is better use of data. In the Lincolnshire case study, they went through a sample of individual EHCPs with LA staff. It’s unclear how many cases they looked at. But in their sample, IMPOWER say that there were missed opportunities to intervene earlier in 69% of cases – interventions that they say would have prevented, reduced, or at least delayed needs from escalating. 

They also say that in over 70% of cases, the support was already available, but it wasn’t being used properly.

The implication here is that if the SEND system was primed to intervene earlier, then needs would be identified earlier, and met earlier. And needs were met earlier, then they’d be met more cheaply in the long run, and they’d be more likely to be met without needing an EHCP.

And that sounds sensible, right? I asked IMPOWER if they or Lincolnshire had some specific case studies that they could share – ones that showed that needs were definitely being met earlier, better, and more cheaply, with less strain on the SEND system. I also asked them which specific sources of early intervention support weren’t currently being used well, which sources were readily accessible to families and schools, and why they weren’t being used well.

IMPOWER haven't yet responded, but are planning to answer "robustly" and we'll run their reply when we get it. 

Other parts of this solution were more traditional, such as setting up an advice line and a re-jigged panel, “to better signpost and divert SENDCo’s to currently available support.” 

Does it all work? Adding up the numbers

IMPOWER say yes. But who does it work for?

IMPOWER list several key measured impacts from their work in Lincolnshire. They claim that there has been a “sustained and significant reduction” in the number of new EHCPs, 414 fewer new EHCPs to be precise, than the LA predicted they’d produce in the 2020-21 academic year. Strictly speaking, that’s a cut in the growth rate, rather than an overall drop - Lincolnshire’s own data suggests that the overall number of EHCPs has roughly flatlined in 2020-21.

IMPOWER claim that this has: 

“...delivered potential cost avoidance of £5.3 million from September 2020 to August 2021, relieving pressure on the statutory process and enabling a greater focus on early intervention.”

Valuing SEND in Lincolnshire

I know a bit about SEND finance. I’ve tried hard to make these numbers stack up – a claimed saving of £12,800 for each foregone EHCP. This number is implausible, particularly if the focus was on moving marginal cases out of the high-needs funding pot. It’s also not clear what the impact on individual school budgets has been.

So I asked IMPOWER how they came up with this cost saving number. What their assumptions were, which funding pots would have seen the cost savings, whether other funding pots took more of a hit as a result (particularly school budgets), and which particular early intervention schemes had seen a direct, measurable financial uplift from the ‘savings.’

I also asked them whether this £5.3 million of estimated cost avoidance included IMPOWER’s own fees – which Lincolnshire have reported were £479,000.

We await IMPOWER's response.

Better outcomes – for whom?

Most importantly, we look forward to IMPOWER's response to the most vital question of all. 

Their case study draws heavily on data analysis, measuring what’s important, bringing people together, and changing the way people act. They claim that this approach is already delivering better outcomes for children and young people with SEND. I hope they’re right. But IMPOWER’s case study offers no specific or measurable evidence that outcomes for kids have actually improved

It’s clear that some things have improved for the council. And in a well-run LA, you’d hope that would lead to better things for kids eventually. But in a case study full of numbers, a case study that hammers home the importance of acting on measurable data to improve outcomes, there’s no evidence of how this work has actually improved things for kids. It’s a puzzling omission.

Why does any of this matter?

Ordinarily, this sort of thing wouldn’t be worth writing about. What makes the IMPOWER case different though is that they’re now directly plugged into the SEND system at a national level. 

Last month, IMPOWER won a Department for Education contract to develop a framework that’ll define what good value looks like in the world of SEND, what good outcomes look like, and how government can tell whether money’s being spent well or not.

This framework sounds dull and abstract—-but it matters a lot. The DfE will use IMPOWER’s framework to help them understand how the SEND system works, whether it’s working well, and whether money is being spent efficiently. 

In short, this framework – the one IMPOWER are now creating – will do a lot to define what government think is worth spending money on in SEND. For many years to come.

If you have time, I’d strongly recommend reading this excellent SNJ post from the Driver Trust’s Chris Rossiter – it lays out what’s at stake here far better than I can. Chris raises an important concern in that it looks very much like the DfE “wants to narrow its concept of value away from your child to how well your LA manages its SEND budget.” 

Read that sentence again, then read the IMPOWER case study. Think about what’s missing from the study, and why.

Boom Time for Consultants

There’s never been a better time to be a consultant in the world of SEND. Change is afoot. The SEND Review is imminent. The DfE’s ‘safety valve’ SEND funding intervention programme has also triggered a wave of local authority spending on consultants.

Does that make IMPOWER bad guys? I don’t think so - or at least, it’s not as simple as that. Parents who have worked with IMPOWER (mostly, but not exclusively from parent carer forums) tend to rate them highly. And there’s a fair bit of sense in what IMPOWER put forward. 

Early intervention does make sense if you want to prevent some types of SEN from becoming more severe, and it’s often cheaper if you take this approach too. IMPOWER are also right to look hard at how and why people make decisions about SEND provision. Get these things right, and it will definitely make a positive difference to outcomes for kids and young people with SEND.

But there are a lot of unanswered questions, and lots of things that leave us uneasy.

In their product, IMPOWER often seem to treat specialist SEND provision as an expensive, addictive, and ineffective drain on the public purse, to be avoided wherever possible, rather than something that unlocks potential and opens up new life chances. 

There are a lot of special educational needs that can’t be managed, manipulated, reduced, or wished out of existence. There are SEN that have always required, and will continue to require, significant, sustained, and expert specialist support for children and young people to thrive and take a place in society. IMPOWER have nothing to say about that.

Believing is not seeing

IMPOWER also strongly feel that a lot of money can be saved if people—-primarily parents and frontline school staff—-Believed Harder. There’s a lot of talk about ‘resetting expectations’ and ‘improving confidence’ which, without rigorous supply-side change, will achieve nothing other than lighten the local authority’s load. 

When my kids’ mainstream placements failed, it wasn’t because I didn’t have confidence in the school or the LA. I did have confidence, but that made no difference. My kids’ mainstream placements failed because therapists and specialist staff weren’t replaced, because staff were forbidden to tell parents that had happened, and because my kids’ statutory plans were unspecified, unquantified crap. 

IMPOWER place a lot of emphasis—-rightly—-on the importance of making better decisions in SEND. But their emphasis is very much on parents, SENCOs and other frontline professionals making ‘better’ decisions. They have a lot less to say about how local authorities can and must make better decisions. To anyone even vaguely familiar with LA outcomes at SENDIST, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, and area SEND inspections, that’s a painfully obvious omission.

The proof of the pudding...

And ultimately, has IMPOWER’s approach worked anywhere yet, by the only litmus test that really matters, that of better outcomes for all children and young people with SEND?

The Lincolnshire case study has definite potential, but it didn’t answer that key question - and Lincolnshire are as good an LA for SEND as you’ll find anywhere in the country. The other LAs that IMPOWER have worked with? Not so much. I looked hard for evidence of sustained impact at the other LA SEND services that IMPOWER has worked with in recent years. I found none.

Either way, a version of this is likely to be part of the long-term future for SEND. Parents and mainstream school staff will be "nudged" into expecting less, doing more, and believing harder in the rest of the new SEND system stepping up and doing their bit. Whether the latter will happen is an open question.

*We sent the questions via an Impower staffer on 24th February. Although answers have been promised, as of publication, Matt has so far had no response. Once we receive their answers, we will run the answers to our questions as a separate post

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Matt Keer

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