Miracles and magic: Delivering Better Value in SEND. But better value for whom?

The world of SEND is swamped with consultants and cost-saving schemes at the moment, and even more are being planned. We’ve looked at some of these already. Today, it’s the turn of the Department for Education’s Delivering Better Value in SEND (DBV) programme.

How does the DBV programme work, and how are parents and carers involved? Before we take a look, here’s some background…

SEND funding – still under pressure

Over the last few years, most local authorities have spent more money on education than they’ve been given by central government, despite hefty increases since 2019. High-needs SEND has been the area where LAs have usually spent more than they’ve received.

The key education funding channel from central government to local government is called the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG). Most LAs are now running a deficit on their DSG account, and the overall deficit is getting worse.

From council financial reporting, we estimate that the combined DSG deficit across all LAs in the red stood at around £1.6 billion at the end of March 2023. Whitehall wants this money back, and it wants to stop LAs from running up further deficits in the future. In their language, they want to make SEND finances “sustainable,” and that means local authorities need to stop “overspending” – their words, not ours.

A glance at the DfE’s risk register tells you that it’s the spending that civil servants see as the biggest SEND risk – not appalling outcomes for children and young people.

How are they aiming to do this?

At the moment, the DfE has two main programmes underway to get SEND finances back on track.

One of these is called Safety Valve. This is for the LAs in deepest financial ordure, and there are 34 LAs currently on the programme.

We’ve covered the Safety Valve programme already at SNJ here. Basically, the DfE provides bailout funding to help the council pay down its existing DSG deficit. In return, the LA agrees to run its SEND services differently, in ways that the DfE prefers to see.

What is Delivering Better Value and who is taking part?

The Delivering Better Value (DBV) programme is lighter-touch, but it’ll also mean changes to the services that children and young people with SEND get. Here’s something we wrote earlier about that.

The DBV programme kicked off in the summer of 2022. In all, 55 local authorities have signed up it. Check the bottom of the article to see whether your LA is taking part. You can also find more detail at the DBV programme’s website.

DBV is overseen by the DfE - but it’s largely run through a two-year, £19.5m contract with a consultancy firm, Newton Europe, which is working in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). The programme has two objectives. The first is to help LAs find better ways to understand and manage their high-needs SEND finances, while also ensuring good outcomes for children and young people. This work has already kicked off.

The second objective is to provide the DfE with a “comprehensive national playbook incorporating learnings and insights from the programme into a model to help LAs maintain sustainability beyond the end of the programme.” According to the contract, this work is supposed to deliver by February 2024.

At local level, each DBV scheme is split into three modules:

  • Module 1 is hardcore numberwang. The consultants pore over data to work out where the main financial pressure is coming from, and forecast the financial picture in five years’ time if the LA continues on its current course.
  • Module 2 tries to find out what’s driving the financial pressure. Here, the consultants talk to LA staff, practitioners, parents, carers, and young people with SEND – a root cause analysis that’s intended to generate solutions to help the LA deal with its financial mess.
  • Module 3 tries to develop solutions – highlighting ‘opportunities’ that the LA can take to bring itself back on track, and working out how ready the LA is to put these ‘opportunities’ into action.

The LAs in the first two DBV tranches have mostly completed all three modules. At the time of writing, the LAs in the third tranche are mostly at Module 2.

Unlike the Safety Valve programme, the LAs in the DBV scheme don’t get any extra cash to help pay down their DSG deficits. What they do get is the chance to apply for a grant from the DfE (worth up to £1 million) to implement solutions identified by the DBV programme, over a three-year period.

We’ve spent time looking at the way the DBV programme works. Some of it is good, some of it is flawed. But ultimately, it’ll probably leave almost everyone disappointed.

The Good

As a practical exercise in financial and analytical consultancy, DBV is a high-quality programme. The consultants are doing a thorough job of pulling apart the LAs’ data. They express their findings in a way that’s refreshingly clear of the buzzwords and bull that often drenches consultancy work. They look hard at supply as well as demand. They take more trouble to gather detailed and objective input from parents and carers than most consultants do.

The first LAs in the DBV scheme have put forward their £1m implementation grant applications to the DfE. Most of their grant applications have been accepted, and there’s a lot of sensible and achievable proposals in the mix. Examples we’ve seen include the following:

  • Funding to improve outreach from special schools to mainstream, to share expertise and resources;
  • Specific training programmes to improve mainstream schools’ understanding of ASD;
  • Setting up dedicated teams to improve the process of transitioning pupils from primary schools to secondary schools – getting needs and provision requirements flagged up earlier and getting phase transfer meetings arranged earlier, avoiding a messy scramble in the last terms of Year 6.

If these schemes are implemented well, and if they are sustained beyond the life of the grant, then they should mean earlier and better support, as well as reducing expenditure.

‘Opportunities’ – for whom?

Unfortunately, it’s not all good. Firstly, the Department for Education made it pretty clear early on what they wanted from the DBV programme. That’s shaped the programme’s outputs in ways that’ll mean trouble down the line. We’ll cover that in more detail in a follow-up post.

The ‘opportunities’ that the final phase of DBV identifies are supposed to provide chances to reduce spending – in theory, while improving outcomes for children and young people with SEND at the same time.

What do these ‘opportunities’ tend to look like? These examples probably won’t come as a surprise to you:

  • 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.

The ‘opportunities’ are very similar to what the Safety Valve programme requires from its LAs – but without any of the bailout cash. If the ‘opportunities’ are to work without harm to children and young people with SEND, they require capacity and resources that have mostly yet to materialise.

At LA level, these are phrased with depressingly predictable and cowardly euphemisms: ‘more robust decision-making at panel,‘time-limited EHCPs,’ ‘right-sizing specialist placements,’ and our old favourite, ‘increasing parental confidence.

Over and over again, DBV identifies ‘improving parental confidence’ as a key challenge. The consultants tend to describe the challenge as it should be described: a requirement to put the right support in place early, in full, at the right time to prevent needs from escalating. Get the capacity, resources, and competence right, and parental confidence will follow.

At other times, it’s just expressed – usually by LAs to schools – as thinly disguised parent blaming. If parents just "Believe Harder,” then many of the problems will magically disappear. And there’s an emphasis on ‘parent training’ in a few LA proposals that is hard to distinguish from straight-up gaslighting.

Case Reviews

This takes us to the other key flaw in DBV: the way that case reviews are handled.

Case reviews are a core part of the DBV process. In each LA, a review group looks at a few dozen individual cases. The group looks at whether ‘ideal outcomes’ were achieved – and if not, why not. We don’t know who selects the cases, what information makes it into the reviews, or what the group thinks an ‘ideal outcome’ might be.

The review group is made up of multi-disciplinary practitioners. Parents take part in some type of meeting, but parents are not invited to their own kids’ case reviews, and they have no direct say in whether an ‘ideal outcome’ was achieved or not – that’s left to the practitioners to decide.

The problem with this approach might not be obvious to the consultants, but it’s screamingly obvious to anyone who’s spent time in the frontline SEND trenches: they’ve basically re-created a SEND panel. They’ve left a pivotal part of their financial modelling in the hands of professional SEND practitioners, a group of people who consistently demonstrate the worst decision-making in any part of the public sector.

How do we know that? Because when their decisions are exposed to external scrutiny, they are very, very rarely upheld. A 3.7% success rate at SEND Tribunal. An 8% success rate with LGSCO SEN & EHCP complaints. The worst inspection outcomes, proportionately, of any sector that Ofsted inspects.

Why does this matter for the Delivering Better Value programme? It matters, because the findings of these case reviews feed into the consultants’ financial cost-saving projections.

How does a financial cost-saving projection work?

So take West Sussex for example. In their case reviews, practitioners reviewed outcomes for 28 children and young people with SEND. They came to the conclusion that nearly 70% of those children had experienced ‘non-ideal’ outcomes, mostly because they were in the wrong placement, receiving the wrong provision.

  • Only a third of the children in state special schools, according to the practitioners, should be there: the rest could and should have been placed in mainstream to get ideal outcomes.
  • Two-thirds of the kids in independent special schools could, apparently, be moved into mainstream to achieve ideal outcomes.
  • Only one of the cases reviewed was given a non-ideal outcome because they didn’t have enough specialist provision.

These findings – most of which would not have survived contact with outside-world reality for five minutes – fed the consultants’ cost-saving projections. In many cases, inflating them hopelessly.

And West Sussex’s draft cost-saving projections? Annualised savings estimated at between £17.8m and £46.7m over a five-year period – in theory, achievable by down-shifting specialist provision, mostly shifting placements from state special to mainstream. A decent financial modelling engine, fuelled with steaming horse manure.

The concept of ‘ideal outcomes’ underpins all of this work. In theory, that’s great. In practice, it’s hard to know what that means. A local authority finance specialist will have a very different take on an ‘ideal outcome’ to a mainstream head teacher, who in turn, will have a very different take from an NHS commissioner. And that commissioner will have a very different take from a family supporting a child with SEND through a mental health crisis.

There’s a distinct undercurrent here: the assumption that outcomes will almost invariably be better in a mainstream setting, and that more specialist provision correlates with worse outcomes.

That’s likely to be true if we’re only talking financial outcomes. But there’s pitifully little decent research into comparative outcomes for SEND pupils and students by setting, and virtually none into the holistic outcomes that SEND families tend to care about more. For example, research can’t yet tell us what makes a mainstream SEND unit successful or unsuccessful. But here, it’s taken as almost self-evident that outcomes will be better in mainstream SEND units than in special schools, and that SEND units can usually do the same job that a special school can do, only better.

DBV: It can’t please anybody

The DBV programme is probably the best put-together piece of SEND consultancy work in years. That might not be saying much, but it’s something. But for all the competence that Newton Europe has demonstrated, its work is going to make a lot of people unhappy across the SEND system.

The DBV programme’s findings are going to disappoint the DfE’s accountants. They’re also going to disappoint LAs on the DBV scheme, who are already in deep financial excrement, and are sinking deeper.

Check the graph below. The 55 LAs on the DBV scheme already have a combined DSG deficit of around £800m, and their deficit is growing at a rate of hundreds of millions of pounds per year. There are a handful of LAs in the programme who can deploy DBV’s findings to get on an even financial keel. Most can’t.

Click image to enlarge. Download PDF version

Schools in DBV local authorities – particularly mainstream schools – are going to be hacked off. They are going to be asked to do a lot more, in the worst possible conditions. Even without crumbling concrete, most mainstream schools are facing an ongoing recruitment crisis, budgets that are still being ravaged by inflation, and promises of earlier specialist support that have mostly yet to materialise.

And what about families of children of young people with SEND in these LAs—the people who bear the real risk of failure here? Without a near-miraculous turnaround in ordinarily available mainstream SEND provision, without miraculous boosts in the numbers of NHS specialists, and without a miraculous turn-around in organisational cultures – none of which seems likely—we are going to find it increasingly challenging to secure support for our children via an EHCP, to keep an EHCP, to secure a special school placement, or to get meaningful education provision at post-16.

Which local authorities are the Delivering Better Value Programme?

Click image to enlarge. See interactive version here

Tranche 1 (started summer 2022)

  • Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole
  • Bracknell Forest
  • Brent
  • Bristol
  • Cheshire East
  • Cumbria
  • Doncaster
  • Dudley
  • Hampshire
  • Kensington & Chelsea
  • Leicestershire
  • North East Lincolnshire
  • Oxfordshire
  • Somerset
  • Solihull
  • Southampton
  • South Tyneside
  • Stockton-on-Tees
  • Stockport
  • Suffolk

Tranche 2 (started January 2023)

  • Central Bedfordshire
  • County Durham
  • East Riding of Yorkshire
  • Enfield
  • Gloucestershire
  • Hackney
  • Havering
  • Kingston upon Hull
  • Middlesbrough
  • Newham
  • Oldham
  • Reading
  • Redcar and Cleveland
  • Rochdale
  • Rutland
  • Sefton
  • Swindon
  • Tameside
  • West Sussex
  • Windsor & Maidenhead
  • Worcestershire

Tranche 3 (started summer 2023)

  • Birmingham
  • Buckinghamshire
  • Cornwall
  • Halton
  • Lewisham
  • North Yorkshire
  • St Helens
  • Sunderland
  • Thurrock
  • Tower Hamlets
  • Warwickshire
  • West Berkshire
  • Wiltshire
  • Wirral

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Matt Keer
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