Director at criticised council wins DfE contract to help others improve

The DfE has appointed 13 SEND advisers on salaries of £90k to act as 'critical friends'

The DfE has appointed 13 SEND advisers on salaries of £90k to act as 'critical friends'

A former council official who worked for a local authority criticised by inspectors for “serious weaknesses” in special needs support will advise other councils on how to improve.

The Department for Education has appointed 13 new SEND advisers, on salaries of £90,000, to act as “critical friends” to “support and challenge” councils.

They will focus on areas judged by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission to require a written statement of action for their SEND services.

One of the advisers is Judith Mobbs, who was appointed assistant director for inclusion at Suffolk Council after a damning SEND inspection in 2017.

The council was handed a written statement in January of that year after inspectors found services were “disjointed” and parents felt they had to “fight” for full recognition of their children’s needs.

But two years later, inspectors visited again and found leaders had not made “sufficient progress” to fix the “serious weaknesses”.

The watchdogs said the “timeliness” of completed assessments and education, health and care plans had improved, but was “too slow for too many”. The quality of education, health and care plans were “too inconsistent” and “too weak”.

SEND campaigners ‘stunned’ at appointment

Steven Wright, a parent campaigner on SEND in Suffolk, said they were “stunned” at the appointment, adding: “It makes you question how DfE selected these advisers.”

However, the Ofsted report did point out sufficient progress had been made in governance and leadership by forging “strong” links with services and “radically transforming” services.

Mobbs left the council in April last year. Suffolk has not had another inspection since 2019.

A Department for Education spokesperson said all advisers “have demonstrated the necessary skills, knowledge and experience relevant to the role and will support the department’s aim to level up SEND delivery across the country”.

The DfE provided a comment on Mobbs’ behalf.

Other advisers include Dr Kevin Rowland, a chartered educational psychologist, and Cath Hitchen, a former assistant director at Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council.

Advisers will provide progress reports to government to ensure the “pace of improvement is appropriate”.

They will be expected to “align” their support with the SEND review, published last month.

The contracts have an initial term of 12 months, with an option to extend for two more years.

Schools Week has previously revealed how parents in Suffolk spent thousands challenging the council at tribunal over SEND support, with one mother diagnosed with cancer using her life insurance.

We also reported in 2019 how schools faced having to fire staff after the council bungled the introduction of a new “banding” system for high-needs pupils.

Adviser wins £50k contract to ease SEND deficits

A government adviser has won a £50,000 government contract to help negotiate bailouts for councils with large high-needs deficits.

Tony McArdle is a director at Priora Consulting Limited that will provide financial advice to local authorities as part of the safety valve intervention programme.

The DfE has already reached deals with 14 councils to secure bailouts totalling about £400 million in exchange for sweeping reforms to authorities’ SEND support.

The government cash, which aims to ease high-needs funding deficits estimated at £2.3 billion, comes with strings attached.

McArdle, a former chief executive of the Lincolnshire County Council, was an independent adviser to the SEND review and sat on the review’s steering group. He is also the chair of the SEND system leadership board, set up by Nadhim Zahawi when he was children’s minister.

Firm to provide ‘strategy’ advice

The contract said Priora would be required to provide advice on the “strategy, structure and management of negotiations” through the safety valve scheme.

it would also give the DfE advice on “the leadership of local authorities” in the programme. The DfE would work on 20 new negotiations with councils in 2022-23, the contract added.

Priora was awarded the contract without competition under a process known as “single tender action”, as it was below the £138,760 threshold.

In 2020, the Northamptonshire Telegraph reported how a company linked to McArdle won a multi-million pound contract with Northampton County Council, where he was lead commissioner at the time.

The council said he always left the room when the company’s work was discussed.

He also wrote an “introduction” to DfE guidance published last month on “learning from the ‘safety valve’ programme”. He said the scheme “demonstrated just how quickly good leadership and genuine collaboration across education and finance can identify suitable and innovative solutions”.

McArdle was contacted for comment.

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