Sector fears over reported cuts to SEND education plans

Charities hit out following reports that the government is aiming to reduce the number of education, health and care plans for children with special educational needs and disabilities, raising concerns that support for vulnerable children will be withheld.
Sector fears over reported cuts to SEND education plans
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Emily Harle for CYP Now 

SEND and education leaders have said they are “deeply concerned” after reports that the government has signed a contract targeting 20 per cent cuts to the number of new EHCPs for children with SEND, in a bid to reduce costs.

The £19.5 million contract was signed in June last year by the Department for Education and consultancy firm Newton Europe, to launch the development of the Delivering Better Values (DBV) for SEND programme, which will support 55 councils to reduce their SEND budget deficits.

The deliverables section of the contract states that the signatories intend that the councils’ budget management plans under the DBV programme will help to achieve “impacts”, including “reduced cost pressure” as a result of “reduced growth in number of EHCPs, targeting at least a 20 per cent reduction”, The Observer revealed.

Sector leaders warn that a reduction target will be detrimental to the levels of support on offer to children with SEND, with Mel Merritt, head of policy and campaigns at the National Autistic Society, saying: “It’s deeply concerning to hear the government could reduce ECHPs by 20 per cent when demand is rising and needs are being left unmet.

“Early help is vital for autistic children to get the right support, and potentially reduce the necessity for EHCPs, yet this isn’t happening. The government must act to address the needs of autistic pupils. We won’t accept a world where autistic children are denied the support they need and families are left exhausted and on the brink of crisis.”

Jane Harris, chief executive of Speech and Language UK, said: “If the government wants to reduce children’s need for specialist support, they need to do more to help teachers in mainstream schools to know how to teach children with bigger challenges. But more than half of teachers we surveyed say that they don’t have enough training on helping the 1.9 children with speech and language challenges. We hope the government’s current teacher training review gives teachers the skills they need to help the  one in five children struggling to talk and understand words, who make up the biggest group of children with special educational needs in primary schools.”

A spokesperson from Ambitious About Autism added: “A target to reduce the number of EHCPs creates an incentive to withhold support for children with SEND. Why aren't targets for autistic young people the same as they are for others - improved achievement and reduced exclusion?”

Former children’s minister Claire Coutinho previously denied that there were any targets in place to reduce EHCP numbers, during an education select committee evidence session in May this year.

She told cross-party MPs: “This is not about targeting a particular reduction; it is just about improving the system so you can get better outcomes for SEND people.”

Responding to the reports, a DfE spokesperson said that local authorities have not received any targets relating to EHCP reduction, adding: “It is completely wrong to suggest that the Department is withdrawing support for children and young people with SEND.”

Sector leaders are now calling for increased transparency from the government around the targets, with Helen Hayes, Labour’s shadow minister for children and early years, saying: “Ministers need to be honest – they cannot be saying one thing to parents and another behind their backs.”

Catriona Moore, policy manager at the Independent Provider of Special Education Advice (IPSEA) – which offers independent legal advice for children with SEND – added: “It’s essential that we get some transparency from the DfE about how this happened.

“We would also like to understand what the 20 per cent target is based on: what evidence is there that children and young people have EHCP that they don’t need? If there is no evidence that EHCP are being issued unnecessarily, then the target must be driven by a desire to reduce spending above all else."

IPSEA added that it will be writing to the new children’s minister David Johnston about government's SEND and AP Improvement Plan, noting that children are entitled to special educational provision that meets their needs.

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