Some cash-strapped councils do have targets to “manage demand” for education health and care plans (EHCPs), Schools Week has found, amid concerns support for vulnerable children is being “rationed”.
It emerged last week a £19.5 million Department for Education 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 education committee wrote to the government this week saying it “appears to contradict evidence” from former children’s minister Claire Coutinho.
She told the committee in May the government schemes to help councils get huge SEND deficits under control were “not about targeting a particular reduction” in EHCPs.
Robert Halfon, skills minister, pledged this week “with absolute certainty” that DfE “has not provided any local authorities either nationally or locally with targets to reduce provisions” in EHCPs.
However, Schools Week has found both Kingston and Richmond councils have conditions to “manage demand” for EHCPs. Six key performance indicators reference EHCPs measured against an annual “target”.
34 councils promised bailouts
The councils are among the 34 who have been promised bailouts of nearly £1 billion in total under the government’s safety valve scheme. In return, they must make savings on their SEND spend.
A statement issued by both councils said when agreeing the safety valve funding, they modelled “where we thought we would be over the five-year plan period and what that meant in terms of funding we needed”.
“The targets reflect those projections,” they added. They said no targets look “to change our threshold for issuing an EHCP.
“We are focused on making sure the threshold complies with legislation and appropriately meets the needs of children and young people who require support.”
When asked about our findings, the DfE said it was “untrue to suggest any targets relating to EHCPs were created or agreed by the department for any safety valve local authorities”.
But the DfE refused to clarify whether it signed off, or had involvement in, setting the KPIs as part of the safety valve contracts.
One of the councils said in a safety valve update that they are “required to submit a set of KPIs and updated DSG (dedicated safety grant) plan” to the DfE.
‘They’re effectively EHCP restraint targets’
Matt Keer, a SEND specialist for Special Needs Jungle, said this was a “key question. It’s unclear, but if the metrics need DfE sign-off, and if the DfE reviews them as the agreement progresses, then they’re effectively EHCP restraint targets in all but name.”
In Haringey, which has a £22.9 million safety valve deal, an April presentation sets out its “key project goals” to bring EHCP figures in line with comparable councils.
One of the points included to “reduce the numbers of children following annual review who have an EHCP by 7% by 27/28”.
The council said the DfE has not set a target number for EHCPs as part of its funding agreement.” A DfE spokesperson said safety valve agreements “do not contain such targets” on EHCPs.
However, Bexley’s £30 million deal explicitly states an aim is to “reduce the growth in numbers of EHCPs required for SEMH (social, emotional and mental health) children by 48 in six years’ time”.
This would be done by creating four full-time specialist teaching assistant posts to support 80 children in both primary and secondary settings.
DfE said this reduction is “clearly as a consequence of positive actions” to improve early intervention.
‘Transparency is needed’
The government’s SEND review, more generally, is pushing for early intervention which would mean fewer children need to access support through EHCPs.
However, Catriona Moore, policy manager at legal advice charity IPSEA, said: “Some transparency is urgently needed on what local authorities have been told by central government about the use of targets for reducing the number of EHC plans they issue.”
On the Newton contract, DfE said the “indicators” around EHCP numbers “were not formalised or agreed”. As they are not formal key performance indicators in the contract, they are not legally binding, they added.
But Robin Walker, chair of the education select committee, has asked new children’s minister David Johnston to “provide us with further detail about this contract and explain if and how this is compatible with the approach” described by Coutinho as not “targeting a particular reduction” in EHCPs.
A DfE spokesperson added: “We have been clear programmes like safety valve and delivering better value are just one part of our wider reform work, as set out in our improvement plan, to help local authorities effectively and sustainably deliver high quality SEND services for families.”