The Department for Education and Department for Health and Social Care have recently launched a new green paper and associated public consultation on their proposals for Special Educational Needs and Disability and Alternative Provision in England. See ‘SEND review: right support, right place, right time’ for more information. The consultation closes on 1 July 2022.
Over the coming weeks, we will be publishing a range of blog posts relating to specific proposals within the green paper, and would encourage readers to engage with the questions that we raise within the comments section. Today, we launch the new SENPRF blog with the first blog post about the green paper by Peter Gray. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.
National banding system – an end to the postcode lottery for parents and children with SEND?
By Peter Gray
The Green Paper proposes the development of a national banding system for provision and funding for children and young people with SEND. These kinds of systems have been introduced in a number of LAs with the following aims:
A further objective in some areas has been to try and achieve some level of standardisation of funding levels across different phases of education and types of provision.
The DFE has said it will introduce a national model, with a consistent framework of levels and descriptors applied across the country and for all types of provision (including the independent/non-maintained sector). It considers that this will help address the ‘postcode lottery’ experienced by parents living in different areas. In their view, it will also provide a more consistent framework for judging quality, outcomes and value for money.
There are three big issues with the proposal:
1) Will it lead to more equitable funding and provision?
For bands to be meaningful, they need to have a standard financial value. However, recent SENPRF research has revealed continuing inequities between LAs with regard to the funding they receive from central government for High Needs. These relate to history rather than genuine differences in need. If these inequities are not resolved, then either band values will have to vary or some LAs will struggle to meet the associated costs. In these circumstances, the postcode lottery will remain.
One suggestion might be to fund LAs on their ‘band profiles’ (replacing or supplementing existing HN indicators). There would be real risks that this would encourage ‘band inflation’ as individual LAs sought to maximise their budgets. This could only be prevented by a substantial process of ‘profile moderation’ which would require significant staffing capacity at national or regional level.
2) Are banding descriptors as objective as they seem?
Advocates of banding systems argue that they encourage greater consistency in decision-making and address relativities in the way that needs and provision are viewed. While there may be some objective reference points for areas like cognition and learning (skills and attainment levels) and physical/sensory (degree of impairment and educational implications), definitions are less easy to achieve for needs that are largely social/behavioural (eg ASD or SEMH). Level descriptors for these areas are typically differentiated through use of terms such as ‘severe’, ‘significant’ or ‘complex’ or by the level of individual support that is required. Judgements can be subjective and affected by context (the quality of interventions and the ways in which schools and classrooms are organised).
3) Is pupil-led funding the best approach?
The Government adopted its current HN funding approach in tandem with the introduction of the national SEND reforms. It was heavily influenced by Conservative Party interest in vouchers and consumer choice and by growing cross-party support for personal budgets. It represented a shift towards a greater emphasis on ‘pupil-led funding’. In practice, the ‘top-up model’ has led to considerable dissatisfaction for mainstream schools who complain that the growing number of EHCPs (and the associated requirement to provide the ‘first £6k’ of any support) is placing unreasonable demands on their finite resources. Specialist providers find it difficult to determine their staffing budgets with funding being less predictable. And some parents still feel frustrated about their levels of budget access and control.
One of the contributors to our SENPRF seminars, Cor Meijer, undertook a review of SEND funding systems in 17 European countries over 20 years ago and found that “In countries where the finance system is characterised by a direct input funding model (pupil-led approach) the most negative voices are heard. These countries point to the different forms of strategic behaviour within the educational field (by parents, teachers and other actors). These forms of strategic behaviour may result in less integration, more labelling and a raising of costs. Much money is spent on such non-educational matters as litigation, diagnostic procedures and so on.” (Meijer: European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education 1999). Do you recognise any of this? If this is the case, why does our Government continue to pursue this model, particularly given the levels of dissatisfaction and rising costs of our current system?
So, what are your thoughts about the national banding proposal? Will it help address our current problems? And, if so, how? Do you agree with the issues/challenges raised in this commentary? Can they be resolved? And what would be the alternatives?
Peter Gray is one of the co-coordinators of the SENPRF. He has worked for over 20 years as a consultant to local and national government on a range of aspects of SEND policy and provision.