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One of first safety valve councils slammed over ‘failing’ SEND services

One of the first councils to sign up to a controversial government bailout programme over its high needs deficits has been slammed by inspectors over its “failing” SEND services.

Bury was one of the original five councils that agreed a “safety valve” deal in 2020-21. Cash-strapped councils get millions of pounds from the Department for Education to pay off deficits, but only if they make changes to their SEND systems. 

The council got a £20 million bailout. 

But in a report published this week, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission found “widespread and/or systemic failings” at the council and health services – giving it the lowest rating for a SEND inspection.

Safety valve scheme ‘not improving services’

Inspectors, who visited in February, warned the experiences of many children with SEND have “been poor for too long” and have faced “limited positive change over time”.

Experts have said the findings again highlight the safety valve scheme is failing.

“Safety valve agreements are a mechanism for deficit recovery and it is hard to see how this can be a way of improving service levels,” said Margaret Mulholland, SEND specialist at ASCL school leaders’ union.

“In fact, these agreements mean that additional government funding is being channelled simply into deficit recovery rather than actually paying for SEND support for children – which is, to put it mildly, missing the point.”

Ofsted found education, health and care plans for youngsters with SEND in Bury are “typically poor”. Many are “significantly out of date” and “unacceptable quality”. Some plans for older youngsters still described them when they were in primary school. 

The average waiting time for speech and language therapy was 75 weeks – nearly a year and a half. While children over five years old wait up to 15 months for an autism or ADHD assessment. 

Inspectors said the concept of “waiting well” is “more of a strapline than a reality” and “very little” if offered to help meet children’s needs while they wait. 

Improvement areas found to be failing

As part of its safety valve agreement, Bury was told to improve early years identification and intervention strategy, to prevent “the need for escalation where possible”. They were also told to target transitions between primary and secondary. 

But inspectors found “young children do not benefit from a robust approach to identifying and assessing their needs at the earliest opportunity”.

“Many professionals work in isolation and do not share relevant information with each other. As a result, some children and young people move to primary, secondary or tertiary education with unidentified and unmet needs.”

The DfE also told Bury to implement appropriate policy and guidance for youngsters in education otherwise than at school (EOTAS) to reduce health interventions and high needs spending.

But the watchdogs said this policy is “underdeveloped” making decision making difficult and there “remain some inappropriate historic packages of support”. Leaders recognise this and are working to create a policy. 

‘Disabled children suffer’

Stephen Kingdom, campaign manager at the Disabled Children’s Partnership, said the report is evidence of the negative impacts of the government’s safety valve programme.  

“Whilst the government focuses on forcing councils to make cuts to balance the books, the system to support children and families crumbles. And it is disabled children and their families who suffer.”

Two safety valve councils – Bury and Bexley – have so far been given the lowest rating under the new SEND inspection framework.

Bexley, which signed an agreement in 2023, has been issued an improvement notice by government.

Three other safety valve councils have received the middle rating of “inconsistent experiences”, while two have achieved the top grade of “typically positive experiences”. 

Meanwhile, ministers in February withheld £18 million from five councils on the safety valve scheme. This can happen when councils are not making sufficient cost-cutting progress.

The government also rejected Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole’s 15-year safety valve proposal saying they couldn’t afford it.

This was despite the council warning if it agreed to implement cost-cutting measures more quickly, they may breach their legal duties to pupils with SEND.

‘Disappointing’, but changes pledged

Bury said improvements have not been made “at the pace required” and attributed this to a “huge increase” in requests for EHCPs. They said waiting times have “reduced substantially” since the start of 2023.

They added inspectors “recognised the breadth, ambition and appropriateness of Bury’s strategy, but did not feel that it had yet had the desired positive impact for children and families.

“While this is disappointing, we welcome their recognition of the improvements made, while also recognising the distance we still must go.”

They added their safety valve strategy is to tackle the deficit by 2028-29 “by reducing both the volume of demand and the costs of provision, through an improved SEND system”.

“The programme is managed independently of the SEND improvement work but is dependent upon it in order to deliver sustainable services.”

DfE previously said their intervention programmes are designed “to improve SEND services by making the very best use of resources to deliver the support that children and young people need.

“They do not, under any circumstances, excuse or prevent local authorities from delivering on their statutory requirements to provide for children and young people with SEND.”

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