SEND Minister denies the Government is aiming to cut EHCPs by 20% with an emphatic, but unconvincing, explanation

The new SEND Minister, David Johnston, has denied the Government is working towards cuts of 20% in EHCPs for local authorities on its “Delivering Better Value” (DBV) programme, as we reported here last week. Mr Johnston was responding to a letter from the Commons Education Committee chair, Robin Walker MP, asking for further information about the figure that SNJ’s Matt Keer found buried in a contract between the Department for Education and the consultants engaged to deliver said “better value”, Newton Europe.

We have had a meeting with Department for Education officials this week, who have promised to write their own response to the questions I posed in my part of the article which include more issues than just this specific 20% figure, so we look forward to receiving that very soon.

Robin Walker’s letter

Mr Walker wrote to Mr Johnston earlier last week querying the apparent targets for cuts that appeared in black and white in the DfE’s contract with Newton Europe, the consultancy firm raking in £19.5 million to run the DBV contract. The contract is designed to help LAs in danger of facing severe financial difficulties in their SEND budgets. Another programme, the bail-out Safety Valve, is for LAs that are already deep in the money mire. This programme also has many targets and measures for performance that seem only possible to meet without breaking the law governing EHCPs. They aren’t in much position to argue.

“The Committee were also pleased to hear in the evidence session that the Department were “absolutely not trying to” ration EHCPs through the SEND and AP Improvement Plan.1 This statement was also welcomed by the sector.

For this reason, we are concerned over the September 2023 report in the Observer, relating to the Delivering Better Value in Send programme. The report suggested that the Government signed a contract with the consultancy firm Newton Europe in July 2022, “targeting at least a 20% reduction in new EHCPs issued.” Please could you provide us with further detail about this contract and explain if and how this is compatible with the approach that Claire Coutinho described to the Committee where she categorically stated that Department is not “targeting a particular reduction” in EHCPs.

Robin Walker, Education Committee

You can read the letter below. Click the image to enlarge each one. PDF here

Deny, deny, deny

In response, the DfE issued a short denial that there were any targets for cuts to EHCPs, which of course no one believed. We were invited to meet senior officials on Thursday so they could give an off-the-record briefing, as well as that promise to answer the four questions I posed:

  1. Is the DfE, or is it not, targeting a 20% cut in EHCPs.
  2. Is the DfE, or is it not, aiming to pull children out of independent SEND placements where they are settled, and insert them back into mainstream schools (from where they have most likely already crashed and burned, often causing significant trauma and mental health problems?)
  3. Why is the DfE relying on its new buzz phrase of “Ordinarily Available Provision” in mainstream schools to try to meet the needs of children with significant SEND, when schools have inadequate resources and training to provide or implement such reasonable adjustments? While it’s true the Universal SEND Services programme is aiming to upskill school staff, this is at an early stage. The Initial Teacher Training framework still has a woefully inadequate amount of SEND training and a review is not yet underway.
  4. While the DfE says it will “ensure LAs comply with the law”. But how can it do this when it is the one telling them to take action to cut EHCPs? If a child’s needs require the provision of an EHC plan, according to the Children and Families Act 2014, under what remit will an LA refuse one or remove one? As Matt says - it can only be an unlawful one.

Mr Johnston’s response

And now, last thing on a Friday, David Johnston has sent his own letter to Mr Walker. As the tweet only contains an inaccessible image of the letter and not a PDF, I have extracted the text and pasted it below the tweet.

Dear Robin

Thank you for your letter of 19 September. I wanted to write straight away to address your query relating to recent media coverage of the Delivering Better Value in SEND programme. I will write again shortly in response to your other broader comments and questions

The department is not imposing a 20% reduction in the number of children and young people with EHCPs. Our aim through the Delivering Better Value (DBV) contract is to support local areas as they work with their partners to improve SEND provision, so that children can receive the support that they need quickly and effectively, while putting the system on a more sustainable footing. The programme does so by providing diagnostic support to local authorities; identifying opportunities to improve services and meet children's needs better; and then providing funding to support the LAs' plans.

DV's aims are well aligned with the direction of the broader SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan which the Department published jointly with the Department for Health and Social Care in March this year. The primary aim of our reform plan is to put the needs of the child at the centre of a reformed system that gives them the support that they need at an earlier stage than some children currently get it. In achieving this, we would expect a reduced need for some children to receive an EHCP in order to receive the provision they require - indeed we said in our SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan "by improving early identification and the quality of SEN Support, we expect to reduce the need for EHCPs because the needs of more children and young people will be met without them, through ordinarily available provision" - but we continue to guarantee every parent and family's existing legal right to an EHCP when one is needed.

I stress that a 20% - or any other percentage - reduction in new EHCPs issued is not a KPI that Newton Europe, our delivery partner for DBV, is working towards; nor a figure that the Department is working towards; nor a target that LAs have been asked to agree to. The 20% reduction figure referred to in the contract with Newton Europe (which relates to projected EHCP growth rather than the current number of EHCPs) simply reflects an impact we might expect if the Delivering Better Value programme successfully enables schools and LAs to identify need early and provide the appropriate support without an EHCP being required. Another such impact referred to in the contract is a reduction in the rate of permanent exclusions of children and young people with SEND.

I can confirm that I have met with representatives of Newton Europe who emphatically confirmed to me that neither they, nor the LAs with whom they are partners, are working to this figure. Indeed, Newton Europe described to me that their whole approach is a 'bottom up' one, in which local authorities are asked to develop solutions that they think work for their local area. They have categorically assured me that at no stage have they asked any local authority to target a particular reduction in the future growth of EHCPs.

As you highlight, my predecessor, Rt Hon Claire Coutinho, gave evidence to your Committee on 23rd May this year, supported by Alison Ismail, Director for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and Alternative Provision in the Department for Education. During this hearing, which focussed on the SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan, Claire and Alison were both asked about our position regarding the number of EHCPs. They stated strongly that we were in no way targeting a specific reduction in EHCP numbers; rather, as Claire said, the intention is that we focus on improving outcomes for children and young people with SEND. Those statements were absolutely correct and consistent with the department's position. As an aside, it is worth noting that the Delivering Better Value contract began on 1st June 2022, before both Claire Coutinho was appointed the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing (October 2022) and Alison Ismail was appointed Director for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (August 2022), and neither of them were party to the wording of the contract.

I would, of course, be happy to discuss this matter further; and I welcome your Committee's continuing support for our efforts to improve our support for children and young people with SEND.

David Johnston OBE MP
Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing

Does the explanation ring true?

As far as I am aware, it’s still unclear how the 20% figure got in the Newton Europe contract, but if the above letter from Mr Johnston is accurate, the person who wrote that part of the Newton Europe contract needs to go back to “learning how to write in English clearly” classes because it bears no resemblance to the explanation given today.

Saying, as quoted above, “The 20% reduction figure referred to in the contract with Newton Europe (which relates to projected EHCP growth rather than the current number of EHCPs) simply reflects an impact we might expect if the Delivering Better Value programme successfully enables schools and LAs to identify need early and provide the appropriate support without an EHCP being required.” simply does not make sense when contrasted with the contract itself.

Here again, is what the actual Newton Europe contract says:

1.3.1. Reduced cost pressure on the high needs budgets of the selected local authorities as a result of reduced growth in number of EHCPs, targeting at least a 20% reduction in new EHCPs issued, Measure: EHCP growth rates and DSG outturns for selected 55 local authorities

1.3.2. A reduction in the rate of permanent exclusions and increased inclusion so needs of more children and voung people with SEND are met in mainstream settings, targeting at least a 20% reduction in placements into independent schools and 2% reduction in placements in special schools. Measure:
Attendance rates and rate of pupils with EHCP in mainstream settings.

Read our post with all the info here

No, it does not

Firstly, if they are expecting a 20% reduction in EHCPs purely as a result of a successful DBV programme, including improving early identification at SEN Support level, it would be useful to see the metrics within the contract to measure this. We looked. There aren’t any.

Secondly, the DBV programme is not primarily aimed at early identification, it’s aimed at saving money for those LAs teetering on the edge of a burning SEND financial sinkhole that’s as deep as the Earth’s core, where the Safety Valve LAs are already smouldering. It’s the SEND Improvement Plan as a whole that aims to increase early identification across the country in EVERY LA, thus, in principle, helping children quickly, rather than, as now, allowing their needs to increase until only an EHCP might help.

It’s the Improvement Plan that the DfE hopes will create better provision in mainstream schools, including by boosting teacher training, thus, in theory at least, reducing the need for EHCPs. Although, in my view, this still isn’t going to work unless they also:

  1. Significantly increase the amount of money schools are given in the “delegated budget” for helping children with SEND who don’t have EHCPs (and some who do). This hasn’t been increased for 15 years and so is worth much less in today’s money.
  2. This needs to be ringfenced to ensure it is only used for SEND and given to the SENCO, rather than be used in other areas of school need, no matter how desperately needed.
  3. Give schools more money to hire back the number of teaching assistants that have been lost to cuts. And pay them at a rate that will attract and retain high-quality staff, along with the training they need and a career pathway.
  4. Find a speedy solution to the lack of educational psychologists and speech and language therapists that mean children aren’t getting that input early enough, if at all.
  5. Quickly boost the amount of SEND training in the Initial Teacher Training framework. Another review isn’t needed - we know there isn’t enough of it, so just get it sorted now!
  6. Make the Universal Services programme that’s part of the SEND Improvement measures, mandatory for all publicly-funded schools to participate in. At present, although it’s gaining traction (and as I’m on the advisory group, I know it’s a good programme, led by Whole School SEND), it still needs to be taken up by many of England’s primary and secondary schools. It’s not fair that children in the schools that can’t be bothered to take up the FREE training will miss out on increased expertise from their teachers. This training is also sorely needed in further education and the early years sector; it’s not only children in compulsory education who need SEND support.

So, will Robin Walker and the Education Committee swallow this explanation? For us, it’s got more holes than a block of Leerdammer and we hope Mr Walker will be able to see right through it…

Matt Keer and Gillian Doherty added additional inspiration to this article.

Also read:

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Tania Tirraoro

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