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UK Govt "quietly" targeting 20% reduction in SPED plans: "huge financial deficits"

Sept 10, 2023, Guardian: Revealed: covert deal to cut help for pupils in England with special needs
The government has quietly signed a contract targeting 20% cuts to the number of new education plans for children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) to bring down costs, the Observer can reveal.

Then junior education minister Claire Coutinho – recently promoted to the cabinet as energy secretary – subsequently told MPs that no targets were in place.

The cuts target has emerged as councils across England grapple with huge financial deficits on Send budgets caused by a combination of rising demand and longstanding underfunding.

Part of the government’s response has been the launch of the Delivering Better Value in Send programme (DBV), which supports 55 councils to bring down their large Send budget deficits through measures such as early intervention and teaching children with special needs in mainstream schools.

In June 2022, the Department for Education (DfE) signed a £19.5m ]$24.3M]contract with consultancy firm Newton Europe to design and develop the DBV programme. The deliverables section of the contract states that “it is the intention” of the signatories that the 55 councils’ budget management plans, implemented under the DBV programme, will help achieve “impacts” including “reduced cost pressure … as a result of reduced growth in number of EHCPs [education, health and care plans], targeting at least a 20% reduction in new EHCPs issued”.

The contract states that the “impacts” would be measured by monitoring “EHCP growth rates” and the state of councils’ education budgets.

EHCPs set out the education provision that children with significant needs must receive by law, although cash-strapped councils often fail to meet these requirements.

Recent years have seen rising numbers of new EHCPs being issued for reasons including failings in the children’s mental health system, non-inclusive approaches adopted by results-driven mainstream schools and improved identification of special needs such as autism.

Because EHCPs often require specialist education provision for children, some of which is only available from expensive private special schools, rising EHCP caseloads have meant higher costs for councils, with government funding not keeping pace. As a result, ministers and council bosses have looked for ways to reduce the growth in EHCPs, sparking fears among parents that Send children might be denied the support they need.

Gillian Doherty of campaign group Send Action said: “Aside from potential legal implications, this action will simply push the funding problem down on to mainstream schools, which are already in a state of acute financial and recruitment crisis.

“This is irresponsible behaviour that will seriously undermine inclusion. It will also result in a two-tier system that severely disadvantages disabled children in local authorities with financial difficulties.”

In May, nearly a year after the contract with Newton Europe was signed, Coutinho appeared before MPs on the education select committee to answer questions about the government’s Send and alternative provision (AP) improvement plan, which includes the DBV programme.

She told the committee she felt the planned reforms would reduce demand for EHCPs but denied there were any targets. “This is not about targeting a particular reduction; it is just about improving the system so you can get better outcomes for Send people,” she said.

DfE civil servant Alison Ismail told the session that while improved mainstream and specialist education provision should lead to decreasing need for EHCPs, “we were not projecting to a particular target as such”.

Tania Tirraoro, co-director of information site Special Needs Jungle, said: “A senior DfE Send official repeated the assertion to me just this week that it wasn’t about cutting EHCPs. Either the DfE’s left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is doing, or families are being lied to. It’s right there in black and white. The DfE’s Send and AP improvement plan really is about significantly reducing EHCPs. But the law is intact, and I urge families to fight any effort to reduce statutory provision at the Send tribunal.”

Helen Hayes, Labour’s shadow children and early years minister, said: “Ministers need to be honest – they cannot be saying one thing to parents and another behind their backs. “Labour will identify children’s needs earlier so that intervention supports child development from a young age, which is better for individuals, their families and wider society.”

The Newton Europe contract also aims to reduce permanent exclusions and teach more Send children via mainstream schools, “targeting at least a 20% reduction in placements into independent schools and 2% reduction in placements in special schools”. This would be measured by monitoring attendance rates and the “rate of pupils with EHCP in mainstream settings”….


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