So SEND is “lose, lose, lose”? Not for these private sector winners in the DfE’s SEND Change Programme

A few weeks ago, Education Minister Gillian Keegan described the English SEND system as “lose, lose, lose.” Plenty of people reading this will agree. But there are organisations in SEND who aren’t losing at all. In fact, they’re doing extremely well among the dysfunction and drift – and some of them would rather you didn’t know just how well they’re doing out of it.

The Department for Education (DfE) and local authorities (LAs) would like to see more children and young people with SEND educated locally, more educated in mainstream schools, and more educated without the need for an Education, Health and Care Plan. To help make that happen, they’ve brought in another group of organisations that are doing exceptionally well out of the SEND system right now – consultants.

These consultants aren’t delivering SEND provision. If you’re optimistic, the consultants are being brought in to help retool the system, so that your kids need less high-end SEND provision. If you’re pessimistic, you might think that their client is aiming to make sure your kids simply get less of it.

SEND: A Growth Market

The DfE began its SEND Review in 2019. Since then, the use of consultants in the SEND sector has ballooned.

The largest single SEND consultancy contract we’ve identified is support to the DfE’s Delivering Better Value (DBV) financial intervention scheme – a contract worth £19.5m, won by Newton Europe. We’ve covered DBV extensively here at SNJ – you can read about how it works here, what reduction targets were written into the contract here, and the DfE’s acrobatic explanation for the contract’s content here.

The other major national SEND consultancy contract is for support to the DfE’s SEND & Alternative Provision’s £70m Change Programme. You can read more about this contract here, from one of its lead participants, the Council for Disabled Children (CDC).

This contract is worth £7.6m, and was signed with the REACh Consortium. This consortium includes two consultancy firms, PA Consulting and IMPOWER, as well as the CDC and an academy trust. The REACh Consortium will help the DfE and hand-picked LAs road-test some of the changes that form part of the DfE’s SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan.

The DfE were unusually slow in publishing this contract. After a bit of prodding, they published it a few weeks ago.

Things didn’t go well for the DfE from the start. They initially summarised the contract in a way that made it seem like it was all about SEND demand reduction and ‘reducing cost burdens’, which went down like a cup of five-day-old sick. The comedy didn’t stop there. It turns out that the DfE had put a load of commercial contract detail online, including the rates that the consultants are charging the DfE per day for their services.

The specialist paper Schools Week hoovered up the contract detail. Schools Week, and SNJ, were all set to report on it - then lawyers descended, threatening Schools Week with an injunction if they revealed the consultants’ day rates. I think you’ll agree that’s really not a good look for a Change Programme that’s supposed to be about making the SEND system less adversarial. In their article today Schools Week quote a spokesman for PA Consulting saying the contract,

“was awarded under a competitive tender” and the rates for the consortium members “were benchmarked via the government procurement process to ensure they were competitive”.

PA Consulting via Schools Week

One of the main principles that is supposed to power the SEND & AP Improvement Plan is improved transparency. It doesn’t seem to be working very well where the money’s concerned.

If those making up the REACh Consortium are reading this, we’d like to invite you to contribute to SNJ’s annual Christmas giveaway, which hands out Yuletide gifts to hard-pressed families of children and young people with SEND. Having seen the figures, we’re very confident you can afford it.

Neither we nor Schools Week can tell you much more about the contract: how many days the consultants are working for, how much each consultant is bringing in for their organisation, or even how many of these intrepid thought leaders have any direct knowledge of the SEND system.

We also have no idea how many of the REACh Consortium have lived experience of disability, or how many of their workforce have been through the SEND system themselves. That’s a telling omission, particularly given the impact that this Change Programme is going to have on the lives of children and young people with SEND.

IMPOWERing Change

One of the firms involved in the REACh Consortium is IMPOWER Consulting. Beyond the consortium work, IMPOWER are getting a lot of SEND commissions at national and local level, using their trademark ‘EDGEWORK’ secret sauce. The DfE has already awarded IMPOWER a £1.5m contract to help them work out what value for money looks like in SEND. The end product of that work hasn’t been published.

In addition, IMPOWER is getting plenty of business helping LAs to manage their high-needs SEND spending. From aggregated council payments data, we estimate that IMPOWER has been paid up to £8m for SEND-related work since the DfE Review began back in 2019 – and more LAs are hopping on board too. We’ve covered some of IMPOWER’s work in a previous SNJ article, here. It’s tempting to be cynical, but more than one hard-bitten SEND parent has come away impressed with the firm’s attitude and output.

If you want a sense of what IMPOWER’s wider SEND work involves, check their Impact Report for 2022-23. IMPOWER report that in Suffolk, they helped to set up an “Inclusion Advice Line”, which took a total of 142 calls from schools in a single term. Or put another way, an average of about 2-3 calls per day. The firm also report that 96% of these calls ‘built SENCO confidence,’ that 91% of calls helped meet children’s needs earlier, and that 72% of the calls helped to prevent escalation of need.

IMPOWER have been paid over £1.8m by Suffolk LA’s Inclusion Service since December 2021, according to Suffolk Council payments data. The LA’s take on their work is slightly different from IMPOWER’s. In June, Suffolk told the DfE that:

“…strategies are being explored as to how we can reduce the number of EHCPs issued and how we ensure that they are issued appropriately.  Work with IMPOWER (external consultant) has been underway for a number of months to establish how this can be achieved.”

Uh huh 🤔.

Recruitment Agencies

Let’s head a little lower down the chain, and look at another group of organisations who are clearly winning from the SEND system right now.

Local authority SEND services are finding it really difficult to recruit and retain staff. It’s a national problem, and the reasons vary from LA to LA – but it gives recruitment agencies plenty of opportunities to fill their boots.

Educational psychology is a crucial SEND system bottleneck. This week, many EPs will be working to rule over a long-running pay dispute with local authorities. Meanwhile, the rates that local authorities are paying recruitment agencies for EPs are astronomical. Examples here are rife, but include the following:

  • Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council spent £368,000 on agency EPs in the 2022-23 financial year. They’ve recently signed a six-month contract for the equivalent of six full-time agency EPs – at a cost of £500,000 – to help clear their backlog of EHC needs assessments. The council reports that some of its neighbouring LAs are offering agencies £780 per day for locum EPs.
  • Leicestershire has recently signed a £163,000 contract with a recruitment consultant to supply locum EPs for three months. The EPs will be conducting up to 100 assessments – so at its cheapest, this’ll cost £1,630 per assessment.
  • We’ve covered Birmingham Council’s SEND woes before. According to written answers to councillor questions, Birmingham’s SEND team employed 113 interim full-time equivalent (FTE) staff in 2022-23, at an expected cost of £11.2m. The average annual cost per full-time equivalent (FTE) employee was £99,000 - roughly a third more than it would have cost to employ them as permanent staff. This figure highly likely included spending of around £1.1m on the team that defends the LA against parents at the SEND Tribunal.
  • Bury Council has been part of the DfE’s Safety Valve SEND financial intervention programme since 2021. According to their payments data, Bury has spent over £2m on services under a Safety Valve cost code. £1.26m of that has gone on a service transformation consultant. Over £500,000 has gone to recruitment agencies. We could only identify around 2% that had been spent on actual SEND provision.

Based on council data, we estimate that LAs have paid more than £4 million to third-party outsourcers to draft EHCPs since the DfE’s SEND Review began in 2019.

And then there are the usual, dismal, short-term agency gigs. Like the recent the six-month, £300-£400 per day contract with an unnamed LA, below, with a “focus on ceasing EHC Plans.”

“Lose, lose, lose”? Not these guys.

By comparison, the TAs I know are bringing in around £70-80 per day, and that’s pro rata, term time. Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for lower-rate daily living? Currently £9.73 per day.

Legal Services

This article’s about the winners of the notoriously adversarial SEND system. You might be surprised that it’s taken this long to get to the legal profession. But these days, central and local government don’t tend to spend as much on external legal help for SEND as they used to. That’s partly because of austerity. But it’s mostly because LAs usually use in-house legal help, with the occasional call to an emotional support barrister.

  • Norfolk is a typical recent example. According to council correspondence, in the 2022-23 financial year Norfolk ‘spent’ £747,600 on in-house legal services to defend against roughly 250 SENDIST appeals, with 2-4 of its decisions upheld by SENDIST panels.
  • Some LAs still splash out on external solicitors and barristers though. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council’s SEND Case Team have spent over £328,000 on external legal help since 2019, according to their payments data.
  • Bristol LA, when they’re not watching SEND parents online, are also fond of using external legal help. Bristol has set aside £200,000 to handle SEND Tribunal defence costs this financial year - a funding pot that they’ve charmingly classified as ‘investment.’ That’s twice as much as they’ve allocated for SENDIAS, and ten times as much as they’re investing in training educational psychologists.
  • Meanwhile, Camden LA remain resolutely old-school. They’re almost the last LA remaining customer of the specialist SEND legal firm Baker Small. This firm has an unenviable reputation – it used to be a firm favourite of many LAs, until one of their solicitors went overboard on social media in 2016. This LA has racked up over £1m of spending with Baker Small since the SEND reforms began - the vast majority paid out since the 2019 DfE SEND Review began.

Who’s winning from all this?

It might seem like the SEND system is “lose, lose, lose” – but it’s not a fair observation. There are still people who are doing remarkable work to improve outcomes for children and young people with SEND. Yes, that’s usually in spite of the system, rather than because of it, but ‘losing’ is not inevitable. At the same time, it’s very, very obvious that the SEND system is creating winners, and it’s very obvious that those winners are rarely children and young people with SEND.

Let’s turn the blizzard of numbers above into a scenario – what our consultant friends like to call a ‘value chain.’

The DfE’s SEND & AP Change Programme is going to road-test a concept called the ‘tailored list.’ If implemented, families will express a preference for their child’s placement from a list that’ll be written and maintained by a SEND stakeholder, most likely their LA. We are not at all keen on this.

In our scenario, the ‘tailored list’ concept will be road-tested by the REACh Consortium’s consultants (cost per day: REDACTED), refined by their programme managers (cost per day: REDACTED) and signed off by a DfE senior civil servant earning roughly £300 per day.

A family appeals against an LA placement decision based on the ‘tailored list.’ Assuming that they still can, they appeal to SENDIST First Tier Tribunal. The LA defends its appeal with an interim tribunals manager (typical cost: £400 per day), deploying professional advice from a locum EP (typical cost: £500 per day) and an external solicitor (typical cost: £600 per day).

The appeal goes to a SEND Tribunal hearing, where a judge (daily fee: £575) and a panel member (daily fee: £292) make their decision. This, like over 96% of these hearings, overturns the LA’s placement call.

And that’s just the cost to the public purse. We haven’t even begun yet on the cost to families, but we’ll be starting that work soon.

One of the signs that the SEND system is genuinely improving will be when it becomes impossible for highly-paid carcass feeders to make bank out of the SEND industry. We’ll let you know if we get there.

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Matt Keer

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