The Audit Commission wants schools, including SENCOs, to show that they are getting value for money from their SEN and AEN budgets, and has produced the tools they need.

It’s a harmless enough request, but one that invariably leaves some SENCOs nervously shuffling their papers. ‘Could you put your hand up if you are absolutely clear what your income is for special educational needs/additional educational needs?’

It is not that they are not interested, it’s just that not knowing how much you have to spend does seem…well, a little unprofessional. And yet the explanation is often that senior managers have chosen not to tell the SENCO what the budget is, and the SENCO is not sure whether to ask. Will the senior management team think the SENCO is on the ball or poking her nose into matters that shouldn’t concern her?

On this occasion we are in a seminar room at Special Needs London and the person asking the question is Joan Baxter, a performance specialist at the Audit Commission. Despite her slightly intimidating job title, she has done everything possible to reassure her audience that she is not there to put them on the spot.

Still, it’s a bit like Russell Brand asking for your telephone number: on the surface it seems perfectly harmless, but there is just that nagging doubt.

Some brave souls do put up their hands. Asked how long they have known what their income is, one ventures five years. Almost immediately, another member of the audience interjects to say that while she thought she knew what her SEN budget was, the reality was that she didn’t. Having looked at the Audit Commission website, she now realizes there are far more income streams than those she knew about. In this short exchange the complexity of SEN funding is laid bare, and the challenge facing everyone involved is cast in a new light.

Joan Baxter’s seminar is called ‘Getting Better Value for Money in SEN and Additional Educational Needs (AEN): A resource pack for schools’. The pack in question is a toolkit that has been on the Audit Commission’s website since April 2008, the latest instalment in the Audit Commission’s long-running fascination with special educational needs. In 2002 it published Statutory Assessment and Statements of SEN: In need of review? and the highly influential study Special Educational Needs: A mainstream issue. These were followed by Out of authority placements for special educational needs, published in 2007. It’s an interest the government clearly encourages.

The concerns

What is it about SEN that warrants so much attention? Well, to start with, there is the money. In 2007-08 the total planned spend on special educational needs was almost £4.9bn, 13% of the total budgeted education revenue expenditure. It’s enough to bail out a small bank. The year-on-year increase in 2006-07 was £387m. This is in addition to the substantial increases in overall education spending, which will have benefited all children, including those with SEN. Of the total planned spend, £1.4bn is delegated directly to maintained special schools and £2bn to maintained mainstream schools. Local authorities retain £1.1bn, much of which is spent on schools.

Joan Baxter throws another figure into the mix, taken from Learning the hard way: a strategy for special educational needs by Lucy Wilkins, a recent Center Forum/Policy Exchange publication that uses figures slightly below those given by the Audit Commission. According to Wilkins, there has been a 46% increase in real terms in SEN spending between 2000-01 and 2006-07, but without a commensurate improvement in educational outcomes.

But the Audit Commission’s concern is not just about the amount of money spent on SEN. Earlier in her presentation, Joan Baxter mentioned the three Es – economy, efficiency and effectiveness – which feature prominently on the home page of the Audit Commission’s website. As governments have insisted on more and more SEN funding being devolved, schools have had to take on more of the commissioning role. That means assessing needs, identifying provision and procuring it. ‘We believe there is a risk here,’ Joan Baxter explains. ‘This isn’t an area of obvious expertise for schools and it is a new area. And of course, Children’s Trusts and schools may actually not be commissioning in tandem – schools are working with and collaborating with Children’s Trusts on the whole, but there hasn’t been a duty to cooperate. So there is the potential for public money not to be used as well as it might.’

Then there are issues about outcomes. Whereas most pupils’ progress is measured and reported on at seven, 11 and 14 in ways that allow the public to draw some conclusions about what has been achieved, it is much more difficult to do this when it comes to children with SEN. Value- added dimensions to assessment and greater use of the P Scales are attempts to address this but are not suitable for all children with SEN.

‘It’s hard for us to know how well young people with SEN are doing nationally, regionally, locally,’ Joan Baxter says. ‘We wanted to really help schools to move their practice along so that the outcome evaluation they do with pupils with SEN is at least as good as the outcome evaluation they do for all other learners.’

Local authorities are also concerned. Ultimately they are responsible for ensuring that the
needs of children with SEN are met, even though the bulk of funding is devolved to schools. If schools misuse that funding, the local authority’s duty remains, raising the spectre of double funding.

Despite these concerns, the Audit Commission has had to tread carefully. When fieldwork was carried out to assess whether a toolkit would be welcome, schools said that it would, but that it had to be voluntary. Sure enough, the guidance on the Audit Commission website states: ‘This resource pack is a voluntary improvement tool, intended to support school leadership and management and designed to be used flexibly.’

Joan Baxter is upfront with her audience about schools’ concerns. While she accepts that there was a real worry about the toolkit being ‘an additional bit of inspection by the back door’, she says that value for money will inevitably become more important for schools and will play a bigger part in future school inspections. Given the current financial crisis, it was a prescient remark.

The resource pack, she says, is there to help schools demonstrate to all sorts of stakeholders how they are going about improving value for money. This can include Ofsted – if schools decide it should. For similar reasons, the toolkit avoids grading schools according to their value-for-money performance. Instead, the focus is on helping schools to analyze how they are making value-for-money judgements at present and how they might do it differently.

Certainly the fieldwork leading up to the launch of the toolkit did nothing to dispel the Audit Commission’s view that such a resource would be useful. Joan Baxter says the Commission witnessed some excellent provision, but also a wide disparity in development between schools. This convinced the Commission that there needed to be more opportunities for schools to learn from one another. The Commission also found that when schools were asked about their SEN budgets, they often arrived at a figure by the simplest route: totting up salaries. However, looked at from the perspective of what the children were getting, there was quite a gap between the salaries and the costed provision.

These disparities were compounded by the different funding formulae being used by different authorities, many of them barely understandable to those using them to calculate school budgets. In the case of some local authorities there was the additional problem that devolved funding had left them with a diminished capacity to monitor SEN provision. Relations between schools and local authorities could also suffer as a result of SEN funding issues. For example, some schools argued that local authorities were getting SEN provision on the cheap, conveniently forgetting that the very same schools had been instrumental in arguing for money to be devolved to schools and for an end to expensive out-of-county placements.

What is value for money?

  • Getting better outcomes or improved quality for the same spend
  • Getting better outcomes or improved quality for an increase in spend
  • Getting the same or better outcomes or quality for a reduced spend (better use of appropriate staff/better procurement of services).

The benefits

This fieldwork enabled the Audit Commission to come up with a list of benefits that they wanted the toolkit to deliver for schools and local authorities.

The first was to help schools focus on value for money and how to achieve it in a more systematic way, so that they could demonstrate accountability for the public funds they receive. Second, they wanted a tool that would link up with the school’s Self-Evaluation Form (SEF), with Ofsted inspection and with local authority monitoring. Third, they wanted to raise the profile of evaluation and broaden it beyond the attainment agenda. ‘Attainment is not an area in our view that is well developed in schools – evaluating inputs and outcomes for provision of SEN,’ says Joan Baxter. ‘If you are procuring provision for anger management then you need to know whether it is improving people’s management of anger.’

Fourth, they wanted to promote collaboration in commissioning and improvement of services for children. Fifth, they thought that it would be useful for schools to have one place where they could find all of the relevant SEN/AEN reference materials: statutory guidelines, useful websites, research papers, etc. Finally, they wanted to highlight good practice, using real examples of schools that have achieved or are achieving value- for-money improvements.

So what does the resource pack consist of? As the site itself explains:
‘The resource pack… includes a seven-stage model for SEN/AEN value for money, covering budgets and spend, needs assessment, provision and evaluation. Its self-review format prompts information gathering so that schools can bring together all relevant management information and build a picture of their current practice in one place. Papers linked to the questions provide explanation of the themes and real examples of good practice in schools, gathered through fieldwork. The papers include hyperlinks to other websites and to documents providing further information, including statutory guidance and relevant legislation. An action plan – the final stage in the process – is generated from responses to the self-assessment’.

While you are asked to enter the type of your school – primary, secondary, special or other – and the name of your local authority, this is not mandatory. Once you click on one of the stages you are presented with a self-evaluation form with a series of statements for which there are three simple choices: ‘Yes’, ‘To some extent’ and ‘No’. For example, the first statement under Income is ‘The school has a complete understanding of the SEN/AEN income streams received as part of the annual budget allocation.’ Underneath this statement is a link to more information; in this case, the statement that ‘Some local authorities, for example Education Leeds, have provided an appendix to the annual budget statement to help schools easily identify SEN/AEN budget lines.’ From here you can access two examples of good practice that you can adapt for use in your school or local authority.

SEN funding is complex, so it may be that at first sight these self-evaluation forms are off-putting. But it is worth remembering that part of the SENCO’s job is demonstrating to other concerned parties, be it governors or parents, that you have a handle on what funding is available in the school and how it is being used. Where you don’t immediately understand a statement, the additional information linked to it should help you make sense of what is being asked and why. You can save your progress at any stage and return to the saved version when you feel ready. A series of templates, some developed by the Audit Commission, others examples of templates used in various local authorities, is available for you to adapt and populate with your own information.

Joan Baxter talks her audience through the stages of completing the self-assessment forms. Having established what its income is, a school needs to turn its attention to its spending. She explains that the Audit Commission is not saying that a school needs to spend all its income: ‘What you have to do is to meet those needs. If you can meet those needs with the funding that you have got and you have got some money left over, then obviously if it’s a delegated budget it is up to you to spend that money on something else or ideally invest it in even better SEN provision.’

She also takes the opportunity to explain that the Commission is promoting very strongly the need for schools to identify the pupils the funding is intended for. ‘National Strategies has a very nice little strapline about the “musts”, the “shoulds” and the “coulds”, which you may well be familiar with. Pupils with significant SEN must have their needs met; there is a whole range of other pupils where you should be meeting needs; then if there is funding available there are those you could be spending additional funding on.’

On evaluation, she says there is no point in spending money on what you are spending it on if it doesn’t yield results: ‘We have all got our professional opinion about things but to what extent is that professional opinion based on hard evidence, either from the existing evidence base as to what works and/or from your own evaluations?’

Conclusion

It is early days for the Audit Commission’s Value for Money tool, but about a quarter of the people in the room have already looked at the site and a smaller number have even tried to use the resource pack. While Joan Baxter has spoken about the tensions between schools and local authorities created by SEN funding issues, there are also tensions caused in schools between SENCOs and senior management teams.

Many SENCOs may not know with any certainty what their SEN/AEN income is but there is a feeling in some quarters that this is often by design, as it gives the senior management team more discretion over how the school budget is used. This sentiment feeds into the growing demand for the ring-fencing of SEN funds to ensure that they are used for their intended purpose. The Audit Commission toolkit offers a way out of this impasse. It can help blow away some of the fog that currently envelops SEN/AEN funding in schools and introduce greater clarity, transparency, accountability and eventually trust. If it is to achieve this, however, schools have to use it. Yet, even at the level of identifying revenue streams, this is a task that requires input from more than the SENCO.

Joan Baxter agrees: ‘When we started this project we were thinking that we would target SENCOs specifically, but as we got into it we realized that we actually had to target senior management teams in schools and shift the responsibility across to that level. We would be in schools and having meetings with SENCOs, headteachers and bursars and it was like it was the first time they had met and talked about how the money is being spent. So yes, I have been saying that SEN is the “must” area – young people with significant SEN – but of course there is a huge overlap. You want to prevent young people becoming SEN in the first place. So actually you do need a strategic approach which needs to involve those people that have got responsibility for the overall success of the school.’

As for SENCOs, there is no excuse in future for that embarrassed response to a question about your school’s SEN/AEN budget. The answers are out there and SENCOs have the best of reasons to start asking questions of their own.