Parent campaigners: We must suspend the SEND Safety Valve programme: Here’s why, and how

with Rachel Filmer, Stop Safety Valve campaign

Imagine you’re a builder, called to quote on a crumbling, damp-ridden house. You do an in-depth assessment of the issues and calculate the costs of this enormous task, all the other trades you’d have to get in, the legal requirements and organisations you need to work with. You present your thorough quote, and the homeowner says, “You can have 40% of that, you’re legally liable if you fall short, and if you don’t do it in budget I’ll bankrupt you”. Sound reasonable?

Except you’re not a builder, you’re a local authority, and the crumbling house is your special educational needs and disabilities service, with the futures of thousands of your council’s vulnerable children hanging in the balance. 

Local authorities have significant and clear statutory duties towards children with SEND, but insufficient funds to pay for these services. The growing gap between funding and needs leads to cuts to non-statutory services. This, in turn, leads to an increasing need for statutory support. Once those services are cut, they’re never coming back, because there’s no money to rebuild. A 2016 report by the Early Intervention Foundation shows that every £1 spent on early help saves £3 later, yet local authorities claim they don’t understand why the costs of statutory services have spiralled.

What’s the issue and whose fault is it?

A dearth of funding and ever-deeper cuts to services have led to eye-watering deficits nationally, which are almost entirely of central government’s making. Rather than recognise and resolve this, the DfE is piling the responsibility back on to local authorities through brutal, benign-sounding schemes like Delivering Better Value and Safety Valve. You might have read about our efforts to stop Safety Valve within our local authority but that’s not enough. Now we need to work together to stop it entirely, for reasons that will become obvious. 

For those unfamiliar with the absurdity of Safety Valve, the scheme targets those local authorities that have amassed the biggest deficits, due to the gulf between funding and need. These debts, of course, would not exist if services were properly funded. While there are no doubt issues within local authorities that exacerbate this gulf, the ubiquity of both the failure to follow the law and the threat of bankruptcy, demonstrate this is a national issue requiring a national fix. 

A lifeline or a deadweight?

No such fix has been forthcoming. Instead, the government has generously allowed the debts they caused to be disregarded until 2026, leaving the threat of bankruptcy dangling over many LAs. Safety Valve has been pitched as a lifeline. These secretive agreements offer relatively small amounts of funding towards in-year overspend, although not enough cash to clear the existing deficit or avert bankruptcy. Furthermore, the funding will only be realised if they cut spending to the DEpartment for Education’s satisfaction. Given that local authorities are already failing to meet their statutory duties, further spending cuts can only mean reducing services unlawfully. 

These agreements can also be staggering in their optimism: Devon, which currently has an annual overspend of nearly £40m and an overall deficit of £140m, is expected to have no annual overspend within three years. Their agreement talks of improving inclusion and early intervention… while cutting services and funding. 

Secrets and questionable truths

Some local authorities are more secretive than others. Bristol managed to keep its Safety Valve application entirely out of public view until the day before it was set to be signed off. Bristol claimed this was due to a DfE embargo on the information, something the DfE has since denied.

My local authority, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole saw its application rejected, as it was deemed too slow and expensive by the DfE. The rejected application has since been published following a judicial review pre-action letter. The plan makes for chilling reading, as expected, with “assumptions” that target certain groups for early plan cessation, or placement in mainstream as an (unlawful) blanket policy. The fact that such harsh measures were rejected by the DfE for being too slow begs the question: what’s in the other 38 agreements?

How will they work (or not)?

If you’re thinking these plans can’t possibly work, you’re absolutely correct. There is a reason that Safety Valve agreements have been created in the dark. Any information released shows the programme for exactly what it is - strategies to suppress, subvert, and sidestep both spending and legal responsibility. Unsurprisingly, several are already failing. 

Recent information shows that £17.7m of the £22.2m agreed funding for five local authorities is being withheld due to an entirely predictable failure to meet targets. Two other agreements have been extended. The vast majority of these agreements were signed with no consultation, no equality impact assessment and no transparency, missing vital opportunities to capitalise on the experience of those who know the system better than anyone else. Some of the new agreements have been framed in the press as investment in SEND services, misrepresenting the fact that this money is intended to reduce debt, not improve services. 

What does “more sustainable” mean?

Safety Valve agreements talk about “more sustainable” SEND provision, but what they really mean is cheaper provision. More sustainable would mean more government money for properly-funded early support. More investment in our mainstream schools. Instead, schools are seeing their budgets cut. Local authorities take money from school budgets to appease their DfE overlords, with the DfE’s full approval, to keep their deficits just a little bit lower. Often the amount taken from schools isn’t even enough to cover servicing the debt, let alone contributing to support. At the same time, many Safety Valve plans centre on placing a higher percentage of children with EHCPs into mainstream schools. BCP’s plan shows it intended to increase this from 35% to 66% in just a few years. 

All those schools and children’s education put at risk, and for what? Schools are even less likely to be able to meet the needs of disabled children at a non-statutory level, so the need for statutory provision increases, and everyone scratches their heads and blames parents for “increased demand” or daring to have “expectations” of a system that is equitable and accessible for their children. 

EHCPs lie at the heart of a disabled child’s legal right to an accessible education. The purpose of an EHC needs assessment is to identify what a disabled child needs. Those provisions are then costed and legally must be funded. Therefore the only way to reliably reduce spend is to delay assessment at all costs, be vague about what they need, and stick a chasm between parents and their child’s legal rights. Then hope to hell that, by the time parents reach the end, they’re too exhausted to challenge the unlawful decision making, or the poor excuse for a plan they get (if they get one at all). 

Safety valve is (as SNJ predicted) resulting in more unlawful behavour

If this sounds at all like parental paranoia, think again. New data courtesy of SNJ’s Matt Keer that has been reported nationally shows local authorities declining assessments at shocking rates despite the low legal threshold. Crucially, it also shows that every safety valve LA that returned data has a year-on-year increase in the number of children refused an EHC Needs Assessment. Whether or not this is a specific target in their agreements, which DfE denies, the result is the same. Spending less overall absolutely requires a local authority to remain ignorant of the needs of as many disabled children as possible. 

If saving money was the end game, they’d invest more in non-statutory services and provision and consider the longer term savings. This is not about saving money. I would like to think that, one day, we will look back at Safety Valve agreements as a shameful chapter in SEND history. That will only happen if we keep shining a light on the dangers of these plans. 

Sign my petition

Therefore, I’ve launched a petition to ask the government to suspend the failing Safety Valve programme and clear the SEND deficits that should never have existed. The tide is turning - parents are investigating, national media is paying attention, SEND is part of the conversation as we rapidly approach a general election. We cannot let the narrative of parental or local authority blame continue to deflect from the real issues, and that fight begins with taking down this awful, shameful programme. 

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One comment

  1. stroudie1

    Those of us who are privileged to work as SEN TAs know the present situation is failing students who are being denied reaching their potential. Many suffering mentally as are their parents and guardians. It’s putting huge pressures and mental stress on TAs teachers and school managers desperately ‘child minding’ students who are waiting months and months for paperwork and should be in different or more appropriate settings, or receiving more support. Only the good will, care and professionalism of individuals is keeping the whole mess propped up. They are being cynically taken advantage of and pushed too their limits. It’s a ticking time bomb society will pay a very high price for later on if not properly funded now. A good education is huge part of the key to all our futures and from where I’m sitting it’s in a poor state of repair and getting worse.

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