A cash-strapped council has been criticised for plans to “turn the tap off” education, health and care plan referrals for vulnerable youngsters.
Norfolk County Council is one of 34 local authorities with “safety valve” agreements, in which the government plugs high-needs deficits in exchange for sweeping reforms that save money.
In an update on its progress, the Conservative-led council said mainstream schools had “not yet experienced the full benefits” of its plans.
In a report presented at a schools forum last week, it added: “However, in addition to our initial plans to ‘turn the tap off’ for EHCP referrals we are currently planning a further workstream within the programme to establish a new ‘front door’ for EHCP to ensure that we can fast-track the benefits of [the programme] to schools and families.”
Penny Carpenter, Norfolk’s children service lead, has since admitted the phrase “turn the tap off” was “unhelpful”, adding in a statement that it “detracts from a strategy that is aimed at improving the breadth and scale of support”.
But it has alarmed campaigners as concerns grow that support for children with SEND will be “rationed” under the government plans to help councils get a grip on costs.
The combined high-needs deficits of all councils is estimated to be £2.3 billion.
Parents ‘extremely worried’
Stephen Kingdom, a campaign manager for the Disabled Children’s Partnership, said parents would be “extremely worried” and “fear that it will become even harder to get their children the support they need”.
Maxine Webb, Norfolk’s Labour lead for SEND, said it was “really scary” for families, adding: “They are looking to get support for their children and an EHCP is the legal way of ensuring that that happens.
“It really damages that sense of trust that [the council] say it is trying to build with parents. And what’s worrying is that most parents won’t have seen this as it’s buried in a schools forum report.”
It emerged last month that a £19.5 million DfE contract with Newton Europe, to help 55 councils “deliver better value in SEND”, included “targeting at least 20 per cent reduction in new education, health and care plans [EHCPs] issued”.
The DfE has sought to allay concerns by saying this percentage is not a key performance indicator.
In correspondence with Special Needs Jungle this week, officials said the department “has no targets to reduce either the number of EHCPs issued, nor the overall number of children and young people with EHCPs”.
However, Schools Week has previously found evidence of councils setting targets to manage demand for EHCPs.
Carpenter added earlier support would result in fewer EHCPs “but we will not stop issuing them for the children that need them – that would never be our policy. We have just increased our EHCP teams again to cope with the record and rising number of EHCP applications”.