Councils with multi-million-pound shortfalls in special needs funding will face visits by government cost-cutters as ministers “lay the foundations” for new reforms under the much-delayed SEND review.
The Department for Education is looking to appoint 15 finance professionals as special educational needs and disability financial advisers (SFAs) to visit local authorities from March.
It is part of a new £1.5 million “Delivering Better Value in SEND” scheme, which will also establish an “index” measuring councils’ performance against spend.
Estimates suggest council deficits in their high-needs funding – for children with complex needs – could balloon to more than £1.3 billion next year amid rising demand.
The DfE said it now needs to “lay the foundations” for reforms due to be announced in the upcoming SEND review and create “capacity and capability” in the system. There is an “urgent need” to resolve issues at cash-strapped councils, a spokesperson added.
The new advisers aim to uncover “underlying drivers” of “high spend and poor outcomes” at councils with growing designated schools grant (DSG) deficits.
‘High-calibre’ SEND consultants
Tender documents last year stated the Delivering Better Value in SEND programme would create a framework to “embed a value-based approach to effective SEND system management” and set out “what good looks like”.
Part of this is an index looking at authority spend and outcomes, to create a “value score” for each council.
The successful supplier would also be asked to create a “diagnostic tool” to “interrogate” council’s data to identify “the root cause” of poor performance or underlying drivers of costs.
Chris Rossiter, chief executive of SEND charity the Driver Youth Trust, said it looks like government is “trying to work out through a verification audit whether councils are using this money effectively, or is there a lot of wastage? And how much of that is spent on management and delivering that system, rather than reaching children?”
The new advisers appear to mirror the controversial school resource management adviser scheme, where government sends financial experts into schools to help them find savings.
But the “high-calibre” SEND consultants will also help develop “reforms and change strategies” to enable “effective management of their high-needs system”.
Documents state advisers will be paid between £24,000 and £132,000 on an initial 12-month contract.
Schools Week understands this is for up to 55 days work a year, which equates to between £436 to £2,400 a day. At the top end, that works out at nearly £2 million across all 15 advisers.
‘Advisors are not the solution’
However, James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union NAHT, said the “fundamental issue” is not “local inefficiencies, but a failure to match the far-reaching SEND reforms introduced in 2014 with the appropriate level of funding”.
A Society of County Treasurers survey last year showed that high-needs deficits across 40 authorities in county areas rose from £134 million in 2018-19 to a projected £1.3 billion in 2022-23.
Bowen added: “It is a concern that the government believes that financial advisors are the solution to high-needs budget deficits when there are far more fundamental problems that still need addressing.”
High-needs funding has increased from £6.5 billion in 2020-21 to £9.1 billion in 2022-23. But it is still not covering costs.
Five councils were told to cut SEND spending and reform services earlier this year in exchange for government bailouts totalling nearly £100 million.
The DfE has set aside another £150 million to hand councils as part of its “safety valve intervention programme”.
A department spokesperson said all councils “must take responsibility for effective and sustainable management” of their high-needs systems. They added the advisers would help “to develop more effective management of high-needs systems across the country”.
But Cllr Keith Glazier, education spokesperson for the County Councils Network, said the advisers are “unlikely to unearth any major issues which are contributing to this unsustainable situation than those who work on the frontline in delivering SEN services have found”.