At the 2 March 2023 meeting it was proposed and agreed that as a result of work undertaken in partnership with the Local Government Association the Committee adopt a hybrid model moving forward.
This would be based on the assumption that meetings will last no more than three hours, with two hours focused on the theme and the remaining time on general matters that need to be reviewed by the Committee as existing ongoing business.
Following consultation with the Director of People, Children and Adults’ Services it was agreed that this meeting would be Education and Special Educational Needs and Disability Themed with reports covering Medway Joint Local Area SEND Action Plan, SEND Inspection Performance Update and Post 16 Review.
The Assistant Director of Education and SEND introduced the item and gave a detailed presentation on the tabled reports.
Best Practice – it was asked what the Council was doing to ensure that best practice from good SENDCOs was replicated in all schools to ensure that all children in Medway had access to best services. The officers said that there were various practices taking place to ensure that skills and learning were shared across schools in Medway. The Council was heavily invested in the training, development and upskilling of all staff across schools by creating a mechanism to disseminate training support and giving schools the ability to determine what training best fits their needs. This was done by working with schools and creating an annual training programme that they could select from targeted areas as needed. It was vital to create an appropriate schedule and get the training offer right. There was also an outreach programme in place which worked to get people into schools to provide support and guidance. An annual conference had taken place where learning and best practice was shared and there was continuous work on how to strengthen services. It was important that SENDCOs were part of the senior leadership team to ensure that they were able to advocate within schools and push the inclusion agenda.
It was further asked how equipped mainstream schools were in their ability to teach children with SEND and their attitude to supporting these children. The officer said that there was a broad range of schools in Medway. The support in schools varied with some schools extremely inclusive whilst some still had some work to do as they were less experienced, to improve standards. On the whole, schools were supportive of the SEND Strategy and wanted to work in partnership with the Council and providers to ensure that early intervention and support was provided to pupils.
Engagement - in response to questions on what level of engagement had taken place with CEOs of academies as well as maintained schools on the ambitions of the SEND Strategy Action Plan, officers said that there were CEOs on the action plan group, and they were part of the governance process. Officers from the Council regularly attended the CEOs monthly group meetings and engaged in follow up conversations as necessary. There was an operation group in place that met monthly and fed into the governance processes of the SEND partnership group. Some of the CEOs were onboard with the changes and ambition whilst some were apprehensive of change as they were in transition.
Top up Funding – more information was sought on the Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) banding as there were concern regarding accuracy of assessment and that schools were in receipt of the appropriate level of funding. In particular, for Special Education Needs Code K (SEN K) children. The officer clarified that SEN K were children that did not have an EHCP but were identified to have a need following assessment by the school. Historically a school could make a case for and apply for additional funding for SEN K children for six months for intensive support for a child. If a child required longer term support that would cost more the £6,000, then an application for EHCP was recommended. Following revisions to the SEN notional budget policy, in consultation with schools, an increase of £490,000 had been given out to schools to top up their SEN notional budget, based on the January census. This put more money into schools that had been recognised as experiencing the biggest challenge. The use of Family Hubs would support parents to navigate the system, provide advice on individual need which would help to manage the demand for EHCP and other support.
Delays in EHCP – there was extensive work underway to clear the backlog of applications. This backlog was attributed to the national recruitment challenges and staff shortages experienced across the country and the Council was working to resolve this through the use of agency caseworkers and employment of trainees. The aspiration was to get to a point that all backlogs were cleared, and the team were working towards a target date of April 2024. The aspiration was to be at a point where all EHCP’s would be completed in a timely manner and schools fulfilling their obligations.
It was commented that there was a notable reduction in EHCP applications from parents, and it was asked what the driver was for this. The officer said extensive work was being done with parents and carers by responding to their needs, providing support, and being more accessible to families resulted in the reduction of applications. Historically, the high numbers of EHCP applications were from parents that were frustrated at not receiving the support needed which made them resort to making applications which in turn would not be supported.
Selective Education – it was asked if the Council had made representation for different funding to reflect the number of selective schools in Medway. The officer said that the proportion of children in selective schools with EHCP was low. Children with SEN had to pass the Medway Tests for them to attend selective schools which meant there were more children with EHCP’s in mainstream schools, however no representation for increased funding had been made as a result of this. The Council was trying to address the accessibility of the education system in place by working with headteachers of selective schools on the provision for SEN children. The Medway Test was also being reviewed to make it more accessible for children with SEN.
Family Experience – concerns were raised on the experience of parents and carers when navigating the system as issues had been raised over time regarding barriers they faced. Reassurance was sought that this Strategy would make an impact, be tangible and that there would not be a repeat of the same historical issues faced with complexity of processes and limited joined up working of services. Officers said that they now received broader feedback from parents and carers due to the large database in place, and they worked closely with the Medway Parents and Carers Forum (MPCF) to gather intelligence. There was a strengthened permanent team in place who utilised the information gathered in tailoring services for families.
In response to a further question on the quality of the surveys and information gathered, officers said that the information was looked at as a whole and not just qualitative, with hard evidence in terms of outcomes being derived. Trends were being explored to draw out wider themes for exploration and making sure that strong evidence based resources were in place. The qualitative information would be translated into quantitative, would be fed back into the action plan and the action plans to feed into and complement each other. The IT team also worked to ensure that the pathways for parents and carers to submit information was accessible. A review and evaluation process had been built into the process to assess the impact on families of the work that had been completed.
Safety Valve Funding - £17.5 million had been set which would address the deficit, it was asked what the timeline was for this to be fully released and whether the Council’s ambitions aligned with funding requirements which were dependent on success. Members were advised that there was a robust risk register in place to support the Safety Valve Action Plan and that funds would only be released upon meeting targets that are set in the action plan. It was confirmed that the first tranche of the funding which was £5.7 million had been received and confirmation that the first tranche of this year’s funding which was just over £700,000 would be released.
The officer clarified that at the point that the Safety Valve application was made, the High Needs Block had a £23,000,000 deficit. The Council received approximately £54,000,000 a year for High Needs Block funding and the Plan would provide the ability to operate within the £54,000,000 in year balance. The Safety Valve Funding received would be used to reduce the deficit and by 2026 there would no longer be a deficit. There were currently more children needing specialist schools than available capacity which meant the children then went to independent specialists placements and this was where costs escalated. The quality of those provision was less, comparable to Medway specialist schools which were all good and outstanding. There was currently enough capacity in the special schools system for growth as part of the capital programme to cater for children in Medway that needed specialist provision. The key was to ensure that more children with fewer complex needs be catered for in mainstream provision so that special schools could focus on children with complex needs, and this would reduce the range of independent specialist provision.
It was requested and agreed that a briefing note inclusive of RAG ratings be provided to the Committee on Safety Valve Funding. The timeline of this was to be further discussed with the Assistant Director of Education and it may be more appropriate for this to be provided when the next report to the Department for Education was submitted.
Governance - in response to a question on what governance structure was in place around the Safety Valve programme to ensure that sufficient progress was being made, officers said that they had to report tri-annually to the DfE on progress made, including identification of risks. The reports submitted determined whether the next tranche of funding would be released. The Council also had its own governance in place which included the Schools Forum, the Education Oversight Group, the Portfolio Holder as well as the Chief Finance Officer.
Early Years – it was asked why the training programme had not been rolled out to Early Years first, the officer said that the Early Years programme had always been in place, was strengthened this year and continued to grow. There was an Early Years and SEND team in place that also acted as portage support for early years
Mental Health - the use of Family Hubs to support families and assist them in navigation of the SEN system was commended. It was however stressed that more needed to be done to support families and children waiting for EHCP assessments that were in primary schools as families were deemed to be coping but this was not the case. There was an increasing number of children that were being diagnosed and referred to Child Adolescence Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for mental health support as a secondary condition. The officer said that on reflection and self-evaluation it was evident that more needed to be done to address the issues and impact of the experience of children with SEN, their parents and carers.
Outreach Support – it was asked why some providers of schools outreach support had been advised that they could no longer support schools in the capacity they had previously done as they would be receiving less funding in the coming year. The officer said that the outcome of commissioning for outreach support would be published in September 2023. Some providers had been successful whilst others did not win their bids. A second round of commissioning was due to take place and the commissioning process in place was extremely robust.
Post 16 Inclusion - it was asked what was being done to ensure that vulnerable young people, in particular those Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) received support and were signposted to the right provision. The officer said that there was a good range of provision in place at level three which was A level and onwards. There was, however, a lack of offer below level three which affected more vulnerable young people and this area required more work needed to be done. The Youth Service was working in partnership with other services in order to establish different pathways for young people and NEET figures had improved in the last year due to the Youth Team and Information, Advice and Guidance teams working together in partnership to support young people. There was a need to consolidate the offer and ensure the right breadth of provision for young people which required partnership working to which the Council were facilitators, but it was down to the providers and the Post 16 Partnership and the Medway Education Partnership group to work together to respond to the recommendations made in the report.
In response to a further question on what was being done to support children with SEND that wanted to access apprenticeships, officers said that there was an apprenticeship teams that linked with employers. There were however not as many apprenticeship opportunities available but there was an offer of support in place for young people with SEND.
The Committee was informed that there were work programmes in place that allowed students to receive a mixed economy of learning which included practical skills, and there was ongoing work with providers to discuss what offer was in place for young people. Mainstream schools worked extensively with their young people to guide them on their chosen pathways. Post 16 must be looked at in its entirety as whilst many young people did choose the higher education route, there were those that wanted to follow a different pathway.
Agency Staff - in response to questions on what training was in place to ensure EHCP agency staff understood and aligned with the core ambitions of Medway, officers clarified that there was not a high turnover of staff and the staff in place were long term agency staff due to the need to ensure capacity was maintained over time, particularly due to moving to the Hub structure. There was a rigorous interview process in place to ensure that the highest calibre of staff was recruited. An extensive induction programme was in place and all staff received an induction with an assigned caseworker, shadowing took place with the provision of ongoing training and support in place. It was vital to get the induction programme right so as not to hinder progress and to add value.
The Committee commended the Education Department for all their work, the thorough way the questions had been answered and the MCPF representative expressed that there had been more input, support and interaction in the last 12-18 months which had made a significant impact on parents.
The Committee noted the report on Medway Joint Local Area SEND Action Plan, SEND Inspection Performance Update and Post 16 Review.