‘Delivering Better Value’ in SEND, or cuts in disguise?

This week, the Observer Newspaper reported that the government has “quietly signed” a contract which targets 20% cuts to the number of new education health and care (EHC) plans for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

This target has been uncovered as part of the Delivering Better Value in SEND programme (DBV), which is supporting 55 councils across England to bring down the total cost of their spending on SEND support.

In this blog we take a look at the DBV programme, why the government are doing it and why an arbitrary cut to EHC plans could have a life-long impact on children with complex disabilities.

What is the Delivering Better Value programme?

The SEND and Alternative Provision (AP) green paper identified three key challenges facing the SEND system: poor outcomes for children and young people with SEND, low parental confidence and financial unsustainability.

The DBV programme is designed to help tackle the third of these key challenges.

It was introduced in 2021-22 to provide dedicated support and funding to 55 local authorities – chosen based on those facing the greatest financial challenges.

The DBV has two main objectives.

  • To help LAs find better ways to understand and manage their high-needs SEND finances, while also ensuring good outcomes for children and young people
  • To provide the Department for Education (DfE) with “comprehensive learnings and insights to help LAs maintain sustainability beyond the end of the programme”.

On the surface, this sounds like a robust and sensible plan. SEND budgets should be sustainable and we need good outcomes for children and young people.

How does this link to EHC plans?

One way the DBV is looking to control spending is by reducing EHC plan growth, “targeting at least a 20% reduction in new EHC plans issued.”

An EHC plan is a legally binding document that outlines a child or teenager’s special educational, health, and social care needs. You can read more here.

As of January 2023, there are 517,026 children with EHC plans in England who rely on them to get the support they are entitled to.  

Over the past few years, we have seen rising numbers of new EHC plans being issued, 66,400 new EHC plans were made during 2022, an increase of 4,200 (7%) when compared against 2021.

This rising trend has continued since EHC plans were first introduced in 2014.

Because EHC plans often require specialist education provision for children, some of which is only available from expensive out of town placements or private special schools, rising numbers of EHC plans have to led higher costs for councils.  

But government funding to provide this support hasn’t kept up with the pace. Many families tell us that they aren’t getting the support that their EHC plan says they should.

Arbitrary cuts to EHC plans could have consequences

We are concerned, that with the DfE actively looking to reduce the growth in EHC plans, some children with complex disabilities may not get the support they need.

If a child needs an EHC plan they should have one. Not only should they have a plan but the support it sets out must be provided. If they are used correctly, an EHC plan can be an effective way to collate a child’s needs and ensure the right support can be put in place.

We understand that there are concerns about the numbers of children applying for and being issued with EHC plans. We hear from families pursuing this route because it’s the only way that they can get SEND support for their children.

If the DfE wants to reduce the numbers of children who need EHC plans then the focus should be on investing in good quality support for children with SEND. Having this support available from the outset would mean that children are well supported, and would naturally reduce the pressures on the EHC plan system as fewer children would need to apply.

Setting targets for reduction in EHC plans without investing in support won’t improve outcomes for children with SEND.

What Sense wants to see

The DfE urgently needs to focus on making sure the right support can be found in the first place, otherwise children with complex disabilities will continue to be let down by the system.

We acknowledge that the government needs to make SEND funding sustainable, but we have serious doubts that this plan will achieve that.

To properly support children with complex disabilities, rather than cutting EHC plans the Government should:

  • Create a long-term funding plan for SEND support so that services can effectively plan for upcoming need and provide a consistent support network to children and young people with SEND.
  • Address the shortage of Multi-Sensory Impairment (MSI) Teachers. By introducing an £34.3m MSI Education Fund more MSI teachers will be able to support deafblind locally and improve outcomes.

Cutting SEND budgets now will only put more strain on a struggling system, leading to further issues down the road, and disabled children will bear the brunt of this.