Council overhauls SEN funding

Yes, we know – this is starting to feel like Groundhog Day. Just when people are beginning to understand how the funding system works, someone decides to change it. AGAIN.

Should this even concern us as parents? Can’t we just let head teachers and council officers sort it out between themselves? In an ideal world, perhaps. But in the real world, parents who understand how the system works are better equipped to challenge it when needed. Knowledge is power, after all. So, make yourself a cuppa and read on…

On 1 April 2016, Sheffield adopted a new system for calculating special school budgets and allocating top-up funding to mainstream schools. Here’s how the changes will impact on different groups of children:

Mainstream pupils
Funding for pupils requiring support which costs less than £6,000 per year will not be affected. Support for these children will still come from the notional SEN element included in each school’s overall budget.

Top-up funding for children requiring support which costs more than £6,000 per year will no longer be distributed by the local authority via the banded funding system. Instead, the local authority will delegate this funding to seven localities (A-G). The amount of top-up funding each locality receives is based on the proportion of pupils identified at levels 3, 4 and 5 on the Sheffield Support Grid (see below) in that locality. The total amount of top-up funding available to mainstreams schools in 2016/17 is the same as last year (£2.1m).

Localities can use the money to purchase services in bulk, or allocate it to schools to buy services individually. Schools will only be given top-up funding for learners identified at grid level 3 or above whose needs have been documented in a statement, EHC plan or MyPlan.
(N.B. The system will not function exactly as described above during the transition phase.)

Special school pupils
Special school budgets will no longer be calculated based on historical funding levels, which were different for each school. Instead, all special schools in Sheffield will now get the same fixed amount per place (likely to be around £16,000 per year) plus top-up funding for individual learners with the most complex needs (above level 5 on the Sheffield Support Grid – see below).

All special schools have assessed their pupils against the grid, and the results are currently being moderated.

There will inevitably be winners and losers; however, no school should lose more than 1.5% of its per-place budget compared to the previous year (Minimum Funding Guarantee).

Sheffield currently has around 60-70 more children in special schools than it is funded for by the Education Funding Agency, and many special schools are overcrowded. The council intends to reduce the number of special school places over the next few years by supporting mainstream schools to become more inclusive.

Integrated Resource (IR) pupils
Current funding arrangements for IRs will continue for 2016/17, while proposals for new arrangements are being developed.

The Sheffield Support Grid
The Sheffield Support Grid is a tool which is intended to help localities and schools allocate support to learners with SEN (special educational needs) in a fair and transparent way. It uses the four categories of need set out in the new SEND Code of Practice (communication and interaction; cognition and learning; social, emotional and mental health; and sensory and/or physical impairments).

Within each category, the grid describes five levels of need. For each category and level of need, the grid describes a package of provision. Schools are expected to use this as a guide for planning SEN provision. You can download the Sheffield Support Grid from the Council website.

Schools are currently assessing where each of their SEN pupils fits on the grid. The outcomes of this process, which is moderated within each locality and across the city, will be discussed with parents at their child’s next review meeting.

Funding Q & A
Q: My child used to get banded funding. Is their funding level likely to change now?
A: Funding for children who were on bands C and D is protected whilst they remain in their current setting. Once the child moves to a new setting, their top-up funding will be reviewed. There are no such transitional arrangements in place for children who were on the lower funding bands A and B, so their top-up funding may change once they have been assessed against the grid.

Q: What should I do if I disagree with the grid level my child has been allocated?
A: Discuss your concerns with your child’s SENCO in the first instance. If the disagreement cannot be resolved, the case should be referred to the locality’s area SENCO, who may seek the view of the locality’s Educational Psychologist.

Q: Does each grid level come with a specific amount of funding attached?
A: No – because the cost of making a specific kind of provision may vary between settings. It’s the package of provision that should be the same wherever the child is educated, not the level of funding. (And let’s not forget, there’s a finite amount of money in the pot…)

Q: Do mainstream schools automatically get top-up funding for children with statements, EHC plans or MyPlans?
A: Not necessarily – it depends on whether it costs the school more than £6,000 per year to make the special educational provision required by the child. This will normally be the case for children identified at grid level 3 and above.
N.B. There is an absolute legal duty on the local authority to arrange the special educational provision described in a child’s statement or EHC plan, irrespective of the grid level they have been allocated. The MyPlan, on the other hand, is not a legally binding document, so it cannot override the support grid.

Q: Could a local authority decide that only children on specific grid levels can get an EHC plan or attend special schools?
A: Local authorities may develop criteria as guidelines to help them make decisions, but they must not apply blanket policies. Each case must be judged on its merits. When deciding whether to carry out a statutory assessment or issue an EHC plan, local authorities must apply the legal test set out in the legislation. Parental requests for a particular special school can only be refused on the grounds of unsuitability for the child’s needs, incompatibility with the efficient education of other children, or inefficient use of resources.

National consultation on high needs funding reform
The Government is currently consulting on proposals to change the way that high needs funding is allocated to local authorities and education settings. The consultation will run until 17 April 2016. Click here to take part.