How local SEND campaigners saw off their LA’s SEND Safety Valve plans—and how you can too

by Adam Sofianos, SEND parent campaigner

We’ve written a lot about the Government’s Safety Valve and Delivering Better Value programmes, designed to “help” local authorities out of the deep financial holes in their budgets (largely created by government underfunding). It entails making councils cut back budgets (and services) to get a cash bailout, but this, as we have reported, puts them in direct conflict with the law on SEND provision.

Parents of disabled children in some areas have campaigned against their LAs signing Safety Valve contracts. Now one group of parents and other residents, from Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) on the south coast, is celebrating after the ditching of their LA’s safety valve proposals—at least for now. Councillors backed the campaign’s petition and evidence around how Safety Valve plans would further decimate SEND services. The application BCP put to the DfE for funding has now been rejected, with reports saying BCP’s proposals “asked for too much money”.

Some years ago, we ran an article from public law barrister, Steve Broach KC, about how to use the law to fight planned cuts to SEND. Today on SNJ, BCP parent campaigner, Adam Sofianos, adds his tips for parents whose LAs are looking to secure DfE Safety Valve agreements.

Get active, get informed, get influencing against SEND Safety Valve, by Adam Sofianos

Regular SNJ readers will know about Safety Valve, the SEND intervention programme from the Department for Education. According to the DfE’s guidance paper, it helps local authorities “manage their high needs systems in an efficient and sustainable way”. Many observers believe there’s another purpose: to reduce SEND services.

Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council (BCP) council has been on the Safety Valve track, but residents have been fighting for six months to expose the reality of the plan. So this is our story: a campaign to drag this shadowy project into the local spotlight, putting it on the front page, the evening news, and the council chamber.

So how did we do it? I’ve broken it down below…

1: Do the research

I first read about Safety Valve early in 2023. A honeytrap for councils with failing SEND services? What could possibly go wrong? With BCP’s children’s services already in special measures, the next step was clear. Sure enough, in July 2023 the council’s CEO Graham Farrant revealed they’d been invited to join the programme. BCP developed its plans over the summer. And so did I…

By now I was quite obsessed with the Safety Valve bin-fire.  I trawled SNJ and Schools Week for the latest updates on contract negotiators and council punishment-beatings.  I facepalmed at news of collapsing SEND provision in Kent and Bury.  I followed the work of experts like SNJ’s Matt Keer. If you want people to listen, you need to know what you’re talking about.

2: Attend council meetings

Contrary to popular myth, councils aren’t ‘run’ by councillors. Officers are responsible for organisation and delivery—though one key role which councillors do provide is scrutiny.

Every council has a committee that scrutinises children’s services. These also allow residents to submit questions—a great way to get your concerns onto their agendas. BCP’s committee next met in September 2023 and this was my entrance. I used some questions to introduce councillors to the realities of Safety Valve and asked BCP for a dedicated session to scrutinise it. In the end, we got two.

3: Engage with your councillors

Most scrutiny committees have a majority of the opposition parties’ councillors. Even those within the administration might want to help (not Warwickshire, obviously). Find out who’s willing to support your cause and get in touch and help them to be briefed. 

Don’t assume councillors have time to research everything: many have other jobs and families on top of casework. Read council documents and share your insights. Before two critical committee meetings in January, BCP published several key papers that exposed all the fault lines in its proposals. By interpreting these, I could brief the others. As councillors became better informed, the discussions that followed weren’t about finances, but children.  Their interrogations even made the local news.

4: Engage with the media. 

In early January 2024, the saga featured in Schools Week, TES and the Guardian. None of this was an accident: I’d been talking to writers on Twitter for months.  I’d also spoken with local reporters at the Bournemouth Echo and BBC South, preparing them for what was coming. Regional journalists need public-interest stories and this would certainly fit the bill. When the drama happened, they were ready.

5: Don’t go it alone. 

In January 2024, the fight received a major boost. Rachel Filmer is a local SEND parent and campaigner (and SNJ contributor) who contacted me after reading one of my Twitter threads. Rachel turbo-charged the next phase of the campaign. I’m not sure how effective it would have been without her.

One of the big differences was in the community she already had: hundreds of SEND parents supporting one another via Facebook groups.  This was the catalyst for what happened next.

6: Create headlines 

In January I launched a Stop Safety Valve petition through BCP’s website. It was a plan I’d had for months. The idea was ambitious: if the petition attracted 2,000 signatures, it would qualify for debate at a BCP full council meeting. This was a chance for something unprecedented: to publicly pitch the facts about Safety Valve directly to all BCP’s councillors.

With our combined reach, the petition hit the 2,000 mark after just five days. Within weeks it became the most-signed petition ever on BCP’s website.  Galvanised, Rachel appeared on the local evening news, and spearheaded two public protests, which also hit the headlines. With Safety Valve now a weekly news feature, even local MPs got in on the act.

7: Use the spotlight. 

After protracted discussions, BCP agreed to hear the petition and debate it at the next full council session. In a late twist, backbenchers submitted a motion for councillors to seize control of the decision-making process, in a bid to support our efforts. On 20th February, we finally took the campaign into the council chamber.

I had three minutes to tell the whole story—underfunded services, collapsing systems, failed children. In doing so, I also needed to debunk the presumed benefits of Safety Valve. Of course, this wasn’t long enough, but it was a start and you can watch the whole speech below

The aim was to give the unvarnished truth to BCP’s decision-makers. Did it work? Well, the motion passed unanimously.  More importantly, BCP councillors did something which many others have failed to do. They listened.

8: Have a plan

If that was a breathless read, imagine what it was like in reality. It’s been an intense six months, and there’s more to come. Phase One was to highlight Safety Valve. Phase Two was to rally opposition to it. Phase Three was to stop it. After six long months, BCP announced on 18th March that its bid to join Safety Valve was, for the time being, over.

But even this campaign won’t save BCP’s children’s services. A decade of underfunding has already pushed children, families and schools to the brink. The SEND system is on life support— and that’s our ultimate message. This is just a small part of a giant puzzle; only the Government can save SEND. Funding, policy and culture all need reform. And it’s more than time for it to do so.

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One comment

  1. Amanda Lazenby

    I take my hat off to Adam and Rachel for managing to get councillors to see the Safety Valve Agreement for what it actually is – a further turning of the screw for SEND families – and for achieving the goal of stopping the agreement being signed 👏🏼

    We live in the Tory stronghold of Surrey where I actually feel those without money or power are further disadvantaged because it is often akin to shouting in to the abyss. Sadly, Surrey have long since signed up for a Safety Valve Agreement.
    I have met with the Leader of the Council and our MP – Claire Coutinho – who, at the time was responsible for SEND. Turned out that was a short spell on a rung of the ladder she was climbing.

    My current outrage is the so called ‘Pausing’ of all of Surrey school’s access to the Neurodevelopmental Referral Pathway which happened on November 30th 2023. I followed the complaints procedure so as to trigger a meeting with the Head of Commisioning in Surrey for CYP Mental Health. She was super twitchy when I got on to the case in Bristol where parent action had challenged an almost identical move. I am constantly astounded ( as Adam mentions ) by how much power these unelected officers wield whilst having very little knowledge. Adam did a fantastic job in getting the elected Councillors to actually hold them to account. I haven’t finished with this issue – the only exceptions open to schools for the last four months are for the two most ‘at risk’ students of each school to be referred fo help. Funnily enough that includes those likely to stop attending – how ironic when for many ND CYP it’s actually being in the current school system which is the most damaging thing for them. I have read the NHS England guidelines for Autism assessment and it states that local ICB’s should not prevent or ration referrals for assessment – and yet here we are. All of my young people were diagnosed through the NHS as we do not have funds for private options and it is crucial this is protected.

    I seem to wage campaigns to a certain point and never quite get where I want to be – possibly due to being the parent of three ND young people and the wife of a husband with a progressive condition.

    Reading this from Adam, I may have just been galvanised…👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

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