An update on the DfE’s Change Programme—plus another SEND funding announcement

with additional reporting from Matt Keer

Over the next few months, we’ll be marking 10 years since the Children and Families Act 2014 (CFA) received Royal Assent. We’ll be looking at the successes and failures, and asking if disabled children are in a better place now than pre-CFA. We’ll have a series of articles and podcasts—including one with the architect of the reforms, former SEND Minister, Ed Timpson MP, and one from his right-hand man at the time, Stephen Kingdom, who went from DfE Deputy Director of SEND to Campaign Manager of the Mencap-led Disabled Children’s Partnership. We have other podcasts planned too, and we’ll be revealing those at a later date. Sign up now for post alerts (above) so you don’t miss out!

Before the CFA’s first decade was out, the DfE was forced to look at its failings implementing the reforms, after the crushing findings of the Commons Education Select Committee’s SEND Inquiry. That was four years ago, and only now are they testing out the ‘big ideas’ for fixing where it went wrong.

The new SEND Change Programme (CPP) is moving ahead and this post brings some updates, and a heads-up.. we have agreed a webinar on the changes with the Department (potential general election permitting) in mid-June

Funding announcement

But first, the DfE is today announcing £850m “annual investment” to councils to create new SEND and AP places in mainstream and special schools, and to improve the accessibility of existing buildings. Of course, there’s a catch: This isn't a new initiative. It's part of a £2.6 billion capital grant (known as HNPCA) that was first announced by the government in late 2021. The £850m is the final part of this £2.6bn grant, covering the financial year that starts in April 2024. Similarly, the new free school projects announced today mostly provide more details on plans that have already been announced before. It’s a bit like me saying three times that I have £50 in my hand— I still only have £50, not £150. Wouldn't that be nice?

We can't verify the claimed 60,000 increase in school and alternative provision places. But looking at the past, present and future, it's certainly very plausible that tens of thousands of specialist places will have been added from 2018 through to around 2026.

The £850m is capital investment. That means it pays for new school buildings, new equipment, and renovations of existing infrastructure. It's up to LAs how they spend it. Thus far, they've tended to allocate most of this grant money for special school projects rather than mainstream, and the vast majority of it goes on schools rather than pre-school or post-16 projects. Because it's capital funding, it can't be used to fund the support that most of us think of as SEND provision. In particular, it can't pay for people. Teaching assistants, specialist teachers, therapists, educational psychologists: they're all paid for out of revenue funding. Although revenue funding for SEND has increased a lot in recent years, it's tighter on the front line than ever before - check our three recent posts on SEND funding if you want more details.

Part of the announcement is about 30 new free special schools from Academy Trusts around the country. But as well as the money not funding staff, they’ll also need to actually find the staff to pay, given there is a specialist workforce crisis.

Inclusion, or not?

We’re also quite bemused that, while on the one hand, the government is “committed” to inclusion in mainstream, and its Safety Valve programme may force LAs to reduce EHCPs, on the other hand, it’s creating more special provision, that children can’t access without an EHCP.

Creating more special schools is open to criticism, but it’s also a pragmatic move: there are thousands of children without a suitable school place who have tried and been failed by mainstream school. However, like specialists, schools aren’t created overnight. What’s really needed is an answer to why mainstream failed, and then to change the system itself so that everyone can thrive, whatever their individual needs.

But none of this funding will do that.

“While it’s no doubt welcome by the specialist sector and by parents who are desperate for specialist provision for their child or young person, it doesn’t address the issues being faced by children in mainstream education whose needs are not being met.

There needs to be greater investment in supporting mainstream schools to become more truly inclusive. We know there are dedicated school leaders, teachers and teaching assistants who are developing excellent inclusive practice, but this is not yet widespread. Too many children who cannot meet the stringent demands (academic, behaviour, social skills) continue to be failed by mainstream settings.

The DfE's hope to reduce the number of EHCPs will only be achieved when there is the political will to provide mainstream settings with training, funding and resources, rather than continually funnelling funding into specialist placements”.  

Sharon Smith, SNJ Director

Change Programme update

At the end of last summer, we wrote an update on the Change Programme. Now, half a year later, we have another update following a recent meeting with the DfE. A recap: there are 32 areas testing the plans, gathered in nine regionally-based “Change Programme Partnerships” (CPP).

Has any actual testing started?

We’re told that all local areas have at least put the core of their local area SEND and AP Partnerships in place and are working on producing the first versions of their Local Area Inclusion Plans. Most CPPs have also started testing the national EHC Plan template with families in at least one local area and are also starting to recruit the workforce needed to deliver the ELSEC*. The programme aims to assess progress with a “feedback loop” of what is working/not working.

* Early Language and Support For Every Child (ELSEC) pathfinders to improve access to speech and language therapy for those who need it.

Of the 32 areas testing the changes, what is each area doing?

Each of the nine CPP areas is supposed to work in partnership with their NHS local Integrated Care Boards (ICB), with education settings and families. We’re not sure how this is progressing…

The reforms being tested include:

  • SEND and Alternative Provision Partnerships,
  • Local Area Inclusion Plans,
  • the Data (Inclusion) Dashboard,
  • the 3-tier Alternative Provision service,
  • the Early Language Support for Every Child (ELSEC) pilot (jointly funded with NHS England),
  • reformed multi-agency panels,
  • strengthened mediation,
  • the standardised EHC Plan template
  • Advisory Tailored Lists.

Every area will be testing all parts of the reforms, but they’re starting at different places. Using the Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland area CPP as an example, the DfE says, “In LLR, each area is starting from their strengths and building from there rather than all starting to try and do everything at once. This is precisely why we designed the Change Programme this way – so as well as learning if the reforms work, we are learning what it will take for local areas of different demographics, capacity and capability to implement the new SEND and AP system”

This sounds sensible, but you may question if the LAs involved have that many “strengths” to start off with—and when they come to test aspects in their weak areas, how exactly they’ll manage trying something new when they’re not even managing they way they should be doing it.   

The DfE says that at this point, the new EHCP template will only be tested by families parents “starting the EHCP journey for the first time. If you are such a family, let us know how it’s going.

What is “Ordinarily Available Provision”

This has been the recent new “buzz-phrase” and if you look on your local authority local offer website, you may well find a document named, perhaps prematurely, “Ordinarily Available Provision”. However, as we understand it, the Department for Education is still working out what this exactly entails—and they don’t yet have a working definition for their version.

We will be looking at what should be OAP in an article soon from Philippa Stobbs, recently retired Assistant Director for the Council for Disabled Children. We’ve also already recorded a podcast with her for our upcoming series, but here below, is what the DfE says about it.

“…in essence, this is about everything that happens before the EHCP process kicks in. Ranging from great classroom practice, upskilling workforce, multi-disciplinary teams based in/around schools etc. Think ELSEC, AP Outreach as a starting point, bringing in approaches like we see in the AP Specialist Taskforces (multi-disciplinary teams in AP schools) and the Support Achieve Fulfil Exceed Taskforces (multi-disciplinary teams based around mainstream schools). This is the area of the reforms where we are looking for local areas to really innovate…

“…anything in the “ordinarily available provision” space will be providing support to families, potentially even before anybody has formally recognised SEND or families have accessed the EHCP process. That means they will not necessarily know they are part of the SEND system, never mind that they’re testing a new version of it.”

Departmen for Education

Our question is, should OAP be what a SETTING can access or what a CHILD can access? What is the cost? And what about consent to be a testing guinea pig if families don’t know they’re “part of the SEND system”?

OAP sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it?

While it seems benign, or even helpful, to create a list of what schools should be providing at SEN support and below, there are inherent dangers that must be considered. The DfE says they want to avoid a “mismatch” in standards for OAP and what is actually available in practice, and they hope to find this out during the testing phase. They say they’re asking questions including, what does it take to deliver this?

However, what is already happening is some LAs are using their own version of “OAP” to unofficially raise thresholds for EHC needs assessments, asking schools to try everything on the list before accepting a request for an EHCNA. Additionally, if a school is in a rural or a very deprived area, they may be able to access the kind of resources that will eventually be listed as something they should “ordinarily” be providing.

So we must reiterate – the law hasn’t changed so anyone using this term to delay an EHC Needs Assessment is no complying with the law.

How are parents involved?

For the 2014 reforms, parent carer forums had a large part to play—and having been part of it, it was sometimes quite overwhelming. This time around, although PCFs are the “official” strategic partners, the Department for Education want also to involve a wider group of parent voices. We have already put out a call for other SEND parent groups in the 32 areas to get in touch so we can forward your details to the DfE. That call is still open.

While it is a requirement for PCF to be represented on each local area SEND and AP Partnership and actively involved in producing the Local Area Inclusion Plan, we are encouraging areas to engage with a wider cohort of parents – and indeed children and young people. How successful this has been will become clear as we learn from the development of the SEND and AP Partnerships, and the Plans they produce.”

Department for Education

The DfE says parental involvement is not “optional” for local areas, but they’re aware that some have not yet engaged even their PCF. So, whether you’re in a PCF or another SEND group and the LA isn’t involving you, please let the NNPCF (PCFs only) or DfE know (we can pass your details on). The DFE point to Telford & Wrekin as an example of good information about the Change Programme on their local offer. In Islington, meanwhile, the LA has sent a survey to all parents of children with EHCPs to help inform the development of their Local Area Inclusion Plan. There is also a “parent-focused Comms Pack for local areas” that will soon be published.

In terms of testing the changes, families starting the EHCP process in trial areas will, for example, be involved in testing new approaches to multi-agency panels, strengthened mediation, the new EHCP template and Advisory Tailored Lists.

How is the funding for testing being used, and how is DfE ensuring accountability?

“Around £6 million will be given to each CPP in several instalments over the life of the programme, under a Section 31 Grant. In most cases, the lead local authority in each CPP is acting as “banker”. The lead LA will agree with other LAs (and their respective partners) in the CPP how the money will be shared and how it is to be used.

“The DfE’s Delivery Teams, along with the REACh Consortium, are providing direct support and challenge to all 32 local areas to ensure they are investing the funding in testing the reforms as required. Each CPP will provide regular reporting to the Department on spend, and each instalment of funding will only be released if the Department is satisfied sufficient progress is being made.”

Department for Education

This sounds like the DfE has more direct oversight than they did in the 2014 reforms, which Matt’s investigation found spent a lot on meetings and only around 1% on training…

What about the young disabled person’s voice?

One thing that’s still very variable between areas is hearing the voices of young disabled people – especially those with learning disabilities. Some areas have well-established groups of young people who can voice their opinions, but for those who have less capacity to speak up, this remains a problem—but one that can be tackled given the will to do so.

The DfE says they’re aware that some of the same issues they heard a decade ago persist, such as the system working against young people, including on access to employment. The new changes plan to widen access to supported apprenticeships to those young people with SEND who don’t have EHCPs, (this isn’t part of the testing) but of course, employers are needed to create more internships – or apprenticeships—to start off with.

Why isn’t there much information about what’s happening?

Other than what’s in this article, the DfE claim there isn’t much to say and they want updates to be “robust”. There will, however, be more information coming around May, as well as three or four half-day conferences anyone can attend, plus (perhaps) nine regional in-person events led by the Change Partners, to get views on what’s working as they test the changes.

The REACh Consortium are now producing a monthly newsletter on the Change Programme which everybody is welcome to sign up to receive. The January edition (the first one) can be found here and the latest was published last week.

Our concerns

This is a wide-ranging programme, and it’s coming in an election year. If, as we expect, there is a change of colour in government, what will happen? The DfE say that’s a matter for the new government. Labour has said it will need to spend time examining where the plans are up to, and we think this is the right thing to do; there are some good ideas in the plan although some such as tailored lists and the spectre of mandatory mediation (currently downgraded to “strengthened mediation”), we would definitely want to be binned.

The research picture is also somewhat convoluted, with time and money being spent on research by consultants without expertise in SEND. There is currently a literature review of existing research going on (and there is tons of it) but we don’t know the scope of this or what is being looked at. We do hope there is research on the power of nurture, something that really is needed in schools right now.

One of the most intractable difficulties from before 2014 is the involvement of health partners. After all, you can’t have an Education, Health and Care plan without the Health bit… but unfortunately, far too many EHCPs are exactly that. The DfE is working with the Department of Health and Social Care to tackle this, but working at a high level is a long distance away from what happens on the ground, despite the role of the Designated Clinical Officer who’s supposed to act as the liaison between the two.

The other intractable difficulty is culture change. As we’ve said before all the shiny processes and structures will be for naught if the people running them believe it’s because there’s “something in the water” that’s magically creating disabled children, or cost is put before provision so much that an EHCP has no funding.

In a previous REACh newsletter, veteran SEND LA professional, Pat Bullen, said, “I think we need cultural change - we are each other’s partners in this, and our young people deserve nothing less.”

Of course, she’s right, and it’s a decade overdue. The DfE say they’re trying to deliver culture change through the testing of partnerships and plans; underpinned by the things they set out in Chapter 5 of the Improvement Plan on strengthened accountabilities.

But these are the same aims as pre-2014. Nothing in this plan will change hearts and minds without a vast amount of local government cash to compensate for decades of underfunding, so councils stop eyeing the cost of SEND, stop seeking to blame parents, and stop doing everything they can to cut the cost of provision, regardless of the impact on vulnerable children.

Also read:

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Tania Tirraoro
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