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DfE safety valves are doing the opposite of what they should

If you were looking for the best way to spend £1 billion on special educational needs support, would you (a) spend it on children or (b) on a complicated deficit recovery scheme?

I’m guessing that most people would probably opt to spend it on children. The government, however, has gone for option b.

Of course, the government would not put it like that. They would probably say they are working with local authorities to ensure their high-needs budgets are sustainable.

But the reason that they are unsustainable – and why so many are in deficit – is because the government hasn’t provided enough funding to keep pace with rising demand.

This year there is a £10.5 billion pot for high-needs funding. This is the money set aside for children and young people with special educational needs – from birth to the age of 25 – who require extra help and specialist support

The size of the pot has grown by about 60 per cent in cash terms over the past five years, but it has been comprehensively outstripped by growth in demand.

The pot is managed by local authorities, which passport money to the frontline providers of special educational needs support such as schools, colleges, and alternative provision settings.

As demand for frontline services has grown many local authorities have gone into overdraft on their high-needs block. This overdraft continues to grow, and it is estimated that it will be more than £3.5 billion by March 2025.

Government and the sector are in agreement: big overdrafts are not a good thing. However, how these deficits are tackled has a huge impact on young people’s education and life chances.

It is currently being done via two government-initiated schemes: the Safety Valve Programme for the 38 authorities with the highest deficits, and the Delivering Better Value Programme for the 55 authorities with slightly lower deficits.

Safety valves are meant to release pressure – not add to it

Taken together, this means over half of local authorities have accumulated deficits that require intervention as they battle to meet increasing demand.

Under the programmes, the local authorities receive extra funding and are expected to make savings in order to make their high-needs budgets sustainable.

Reports suggest more than £1 billion will have been spent on safety valve programmes by the end of the decade. Even then, it is not clear how many local authorities will have actually eradicated their overspends; it will not be all of them.

This is a broken system. Additional money allocated to high-needs provision is disappearing into the black hole of deficit recovery and never reaching the frontline where it is so desperately needed.

Any system for allocating public money must be fair and effective, and the current system is neither. It will only be equitable when all young people have access to what they need to succeed, and effective when all available funding can be targeted towards improving the system for those who rely on it.

If the government are serious about improving the SEND system, they have to stop this madness: freeze the overdraft, draw a line under the deficits and get the money to where it can make a difference.

The School Cuts coalition’s analysis shows that the special educational needs system needs an additional £4.6 billion in revenue funding just to stop the situation getting any worse.

And it is surely obvious that all the money available for supporting children goes into supporting children – not into deficit recovery schemes.

All the time that the government are not doing something about this, the pernicious effects of under-investment are spreading across the whole system.

For example, safety valve agreements are driving already cash-strapped local authorities to move money meant for schools into the high-needs block. And top-up funding to support children with complex needs in mainstream schools ends up determined by financial constraint rather than need.

A safety valve is supposed to be a device which releases pressure – not something that adds to that pressure. It clearly isn’t working and a faulty valve needs replacing.

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