A consultancy firm that saved a council millions of pounds by overseeing a “significant reduction” in new care plans for children will lead the government’s SEND spending value-for-money drive.
Impower Consulting Ltd has won the £1.5 million Department for Education ‘Delivering Better Value in SEND’ contract. It will find “underlying drivers” of “high spend and poor outcomes” at councils with multi-million-pound shortfalls in special needs funding.
Lincolnshire County Council paid Impower £479,000 between 2019 and 2021 to “transform” their SEND services after identifying “the growth in demand for statutory support was unsustainable”.
A case study highlighted on the firm’s website outlines how its work led to 414 fewer education health and care plans (EHCPs) and a 32 per cent drop in needs assessments.
Titled ‘Valuing SEND in Lincolnshire’, the webpage says it led to a £5.3 million “projected cost avoidance”.
The devil will be in the detail but using experience and learning gained in promising projects like that in Lincolnshire should help to bring about the changes
Stephen Kingdom, from the Disabled Children’s Partnership, said the findings raise concerns the government’s new scheme is “simply a cost-cutting exercise and will make it even harder for parents to get the support they need for their disabled children”.
Impower focused on “delivering better outcomes by responding earlier and/or differently at lower cost”, according to the case study.
This included concentrating on early intervention and reducing the “push” to move pupils with special needs from mainstream to specialist provision.
The firm also worked to “step down” children from specialist places – which are often more expensive – back to mainstream schools “where better outcomes can be achieved”.
This included using “behavioural science” to “reframe decision making”.
Impower’s case study explains how this delivered a “sustained and significant reduction” in new EHCPs, with 414 fewer new plans in the 2020-21 academic year than originally anticipated in the “ambition trajectory”.
Nationally, the number of pupils with an EHCP has risen from 237,000 in 2015-16 (2.8 per cent of all pupils) to 326,000 this year (3.7 per cent).
One anonymous Lincolnshire special school head is quoted as saying “that golden ticket [of the EHCP] doesn’t seem to be quite as golden as it used to be”.
But Chris Rossiter, a SEND expert and charity chief executive, said: “How is it possible to save money and improve support for children and young people, when so many of the issues are system-wide?
“It would be incredible if savings were made whilst also improving access to high quality education. But focusing on the inefficient use of funding, above and beyond the availability of provision, is the wrong way around in my opinion.”
However, Sheridan Dodsworth, Lincolnshire council’s head of SEND, told Schools Week that an audit found that in more than two-thirds of cases “it was felt that something could have been done differently to prevent, delay or reduce the need for specialist support”. The audit included members of its parent carer forum.
She added: “Getting early intervention right is crucial for young people with SEN or disabilities and, if the support is available to meet their needs without the requirement for a statutory plan, this is also positive.”
Impower did not respond to requests for comment. Its case study online states its work shows “outcomes are improving, specialist demand and spend has been reduced and partners and parents are increasingly positive about the change in culture and support that the approach has brought”.
Margaret Mulholland, SEND specialist at school leaders’ union ASCL, said that the scheme would be welcome “as long as it is based on ambitions for recognising good practice and sharing it across the education spectrum, rather than being an exercise focused purely on cost-cutting”.
“The devil will be in the detail but using experience and learning gained in promising projects like that in Lincolnshire should help to bring about the changes in understanding and good practice needed to repair a broken system.”
Adam Boddison, SEND expert and former head of charity Nasen, said the majority of councils overspending on their high needs budget suggests that the problem is national funding rather than individual council spending decisions.
The DfE said that the scheme will help “lay the foundations” for reforms due to be announced in the upcoming SEND review, due to be published this month.