The DfE’s out of SEND Funding ideas. Can you help out?

The DfE’s out of SEND Funding ideas. Can you help out?

Last week, the Department for Education put out a call for evidence about SEND funding. What are they asking about, what are they asking for, and why are they asking now?

The SEND reforms – the 2014 Children & Families Act – were the largest single change to the SEND landscape in a generation. But they weren’t the only significant change that happened. In April 2013 (eighteen months before the SEND reforms kicked in) the government made big changes to the way they fund education at local level. These funding changes had a big impact on SEND too. 

In reality, many of the challenges that parents and professionals experience with the current system are not really down to the SEND reforms, they’re a by-product of the way that SEND funding works.

So six years after these funding changes, the Department for Education (DfE) is taking a look at whether it needs to ‘tweak' the current SEND funding setup. Whether you’re a parent, professional, young person, MP or civil servant, if you’re reading this you’ll probably have noticed that SEND funding is not in the best of health right now (and that’s putting it kindly). So what does the DfE want to hear about from us, and why?

The call for evidence

Last week, the DfE put out a 27-page document outlining what they're looking for. The DfE wants to take a look at the cogs and wheels whirring deep within the SEND funding system that “may be adversely influencing local authorities, mainstream schools, colleges and other education providers in their support for children and young people with SEN, those who are disabled, those who require alternative provision (AP) and those at risk of exclusion from school.”

The DfE wants to gather evidence from people who are affected by the SEND funding system (ie, all of us), and they’re gathering it in two ways: a 28-question survey, and a series of workshops that will be set up over the next few months. 

There are several specific things that the DfE want to learn more about:

  • Most of the survey’s questions are about mainstream school SEND funding – in particular, whether there are ways to improve how SEND funding is delegated and allocated to mainstream schools.
  • The survey also looks at SEND funding arrangements for excluded pupils and pupils in alternative provision (AP) and asks whether the systems that schools and local authorities use help or hinder good outcomes and use of resources.
  • The survey also briefly looks at funding arrangements for post-16 pupils with SEND in further education, and whether these systems are working well, or getting in the way of good decisions.
  • Finally, the survey also asks for input on whether the current SEND funding system enables early intervention, and whether there are changes that can be made to improve joint working between organisations (like education & health, for example) that hold different pots of funding to support children & young people with SEND.

What are the DfE worried about?

The DfE is concerned about some particular things:

  • “Institutions” taking decisions primarily aimed at ensuring someone else picks up the financial tab;
  • Increased movement of pupils from mainstream schools to special schools and alternative provision, which the DfE claim is “raising overall costs to the system without improving the outcomes for children
  • Particular financial pressures that mainstream schools and colleges experience when they have more SEND pupils than their local peers, or if they’re small;
  • “Over-emphasis” on EHCPs as a way of guaranteeing financial support.

In this call for evidence, the issues that the DfE want to hear about, pick up, and ultimately tinker with aren’t headline, big picture things – they’re things that nudge and shape schools, colleges and local authorities to make financial decisions, for better or for worse, that impact on SEND outcomes and costs. 

  • For example, under existing funding systems, mainstream schools that actively champion inclusion of SEND pupils often find themselves financially struggling, because the way that SEND funding is delegated to schools often doesn’t respond well enough. 
  • As parents, many of us have had problems securing adequate SEND support for our children at the right time, because of short-term financial decision-making at LA level. If our kids don’t get the support they need early enough, the chances are high that they’ll ultimately need much more expensive specialist provision that could have been avoided if need had been met early on.

To its credit, the DfE says upfront that its overriding aim is to ensure this system, “supports decisions being taken centred around the needs of the child or young person, and what provision will best address those needs, rather than principally for administrative or financial reasons.”

But nonetheless, this is an exercise that looks like it’s aimed at rejigging the system so its players make more financially efficient decisions about SEND in mainstream

What isn’t being covered?

This is a call for evidence about the financial ‘plumbing' that supports SEND. It’s about how funding is channelled and directed within the system. It’s about what makes the system’s operators open and close the system’s valves and taps the way they currently do, and whether parts of the plumbing arrangement need to be redesigned.

But the call for evidence body-swerves some of the most important issues with SEND funding. 

Firstly, is there enough SEND funding to begin with? The DfE coyly acknowledges it's aware that people in the SEND system are unhappy, noting that:

“We have heard local authorities’, schools’ and colleges’ concerns about the rising costs of provision for children and young people with SEN and those who are disabled, and about the reducing availability of specialist advice and support. We will be looking carefully at how much overall funding is required nationally ahead of the next government spending review. we will be looking carefully at how much overall funding is required nationally ahead of the next government spending review.”

It's slightly odd that the DfE hasn't included parents in that list of concerned parties, particularly given that they and the Treasury are facing judicial review from a group of parents on exactly this topic.

But this DfE review won’t be looking at the overall sufficiency of SEND funding. It’s all about valves and taps, not whether there’s enough water flowing through the plumbing in the first place.

Secondly, the DfE isn't considering every part of the funding system. Although there is a catch-all part of the survey, the DfE hasn't asked directly for evidence on special school funding, which varies hugely from local authority to local authority, for little sensible reason

It takes some doing to launch a call for evidence on SEND without including questions on special schools, but the DfE have risen to the challenge.

Special schools aren’t the only big omission. The DfE haven’t directly asked for evidence on SEND transport, which has some of the craziest financial plumbing of all. And they also haven’t directly asked for input on whether early years SEND funding is working well.

It takes some doing to launch a call for evidence on SEND without including questions on special schools, but the DfE have risen to the challenge.
Thirdly, there’s little sign of DfE interest in unlawful local authority SEND resource allocation policies. Extending this painful plumbing metaphor to its limits, many LAs have been jury-rigging parts of the financial plumbing network for years, adding their own cowboy-installed stopcocks and vacuum chambers, giving them greater control over how, when and why funding moves through the system. If the funding system’s architects took a closer look at how it works in practice, they’ll find something that looks very different to the blueprints.

Why is the DfE asking for SEND funding ideas now?

This really depends on how cynical you’re feeling. On the one hand, the current SEND funding system has been around for six years now, and there are good reasons for DfE to take a look at it to see whether it’s fit for purpose.  

From some of their more recent pronouncements, it’s clear that the DfE is well aware that high-needs SEND needs more funding. Later this year, it'll be locking horns with the Treasury over long-term budget setting (known as the Comprehensive Spending Review), and SEND is very likely to come up as an area that needs more funding

So if the DfE wants to convince the Treasury that more money is needed for SEND, it'll need to show the Treasury it’s leaving no stone unturned to make the best possible use of the funding it already has – hence this call for evidence.

Cynics would argue though that there are very particular reasons why this call for evidence is happening right now. These cynics point out that there’s already teetering piles of evidence out there on SEND funding problems – for example:

So there’s already a great deal of evidence for the DfE to work with, from a wide array of different sources. Why do they need to ask for more?

Sleight of hand to fend off the marauding masses?

Well, if you’re of a really cynical frame of mind – you shrivelled, black-hearted, mean-minded people – you might have worked out that this sort of evidence-gathering exercise is a well-worn Whitehall spoiling tactic. 

A call for evidence can be really handy when you need to look like you’re addressing people’s concerns, when you’re not willing or able to actually address them. It allows departments of state to show they are responding, considering, listening, even if they have little actual power or inclination to make change happen right now.

And in the next few days, weeks and months, there’s going to be a rolling barrage of things that will put the DfE and SEND under the spotlight:

  • The long-delayed Timpson review of school exclusions will drop this week, it’s expected; its conclusions on SEND and alternative provision will require a DfE response — and that's expected to be issued at the same time as the review is published.
  • On 30th May, there’s the SEND National Crisis marches happening across the country – we covered these marches in a recent SNJ article .
  • Over the last few months, the National Audit Office have been quietly looking into whether the DfE supports children and young people with SEND effectively. Their report will focus heavily on SEND funding, they are expected to report in the spring, and spring is nearly done. The NAO do not have a political axe to grind, and they do not mess around.
  • The Education Select Committee’s SEND inquiry and school funding inquiry will both wrap up in the summer; these reports are likely to contain detailed judgements on SEND funding.
  • And at the end of June, the DfE and Treasury will find themselves in the High Court, defending their SEND funding policies against a parent-led judicial review.

So you can expect to see an awful lot of defensive DfE press releases on SEND in the next few weeks and months. This call for evidence about SEND funding is probably grounded in a genuine long-term desire for improvement – but it also provides plenty of cheap and cheerful lines to show that the DfE is doing something.

So it is worth getting involved?

Definitely. The link to the DfE’s survey is here – it’s open until 31st July. 

At SNJ, we’d never tell any parent to turn down a chance to send evidence to the powers-that-be. But bear in mind that the DfE survey takes you down some deep rabbit holes. 

If you have strong opinions on the use of low prior attainment factors in the calculation of notional SEND budget allocations, then don’t hold back – but with this survey, you’ll probably find that there are at least some sections you’ll leave blank. 

And if you’re right in the thick of things with annual reviews, new diagnoses, or SENDIST appeals, you should definitely prioritise those over responding to this survey.

There are particular bits of the DfE survey where parents are well-placed to offer evidence though: how schools handle delegated SEND funding (questions 8-10), whether it’s clear what schools normally offer in the way of SEND provision, and whether LAs make it clear when an EHCP is needed (questions 11-15), how SEND funding works in further education (questions 20-22), and what happens when local authorities and schools don’t intervene early (questions 23-25). 

There’s also an “anything else we should know about?” section at the end of the survey where you can get stuck into stuff that the survey hasn’t specifically covered.

So what happens once the DfE has collected all this evidence? The survey blurb offers almost no detail, which isn’t encouraging. If any improvements are made to the SEND funding system, they will apparently be “consistent with the wider system of support and ambition for children with SEND” brought in by the 2014 reforms. 

But that’s all there is to go on. No plan for when, where and how improvements to the funding system will be made. And that will simply encourage cynics that they are right in their views.

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Matt Keer

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