Some of the funding that used to be spent on support for learning disabilities now goes on administration. Students would benefit if the money went direct to providers, says Graham Razey

Throughout the 25 years I’ve worked in further education, there have been a number of clichéd expressions thrown about. From Cinderella service to cash-strapped, the sector has a lot of aphorisms. However, my personal favourite right now is the phrase “what goes around, comes around”. At present, in the world of SEND funding, it has never rung more true.

There was a time I’m sure many of you can remember, when the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) would provide colleges across the length and breadth of the land with an annual funding allocation. This could be used to address the disabilities and learning difficulties faced by students, which were often – but not always – articulated through a Learning Disability Assessment (LDA).  Under this system, providers were trusted to use the funding to most efficiently and effectively deliver the support required for their students.

While there were imperfections in the system, it gave providers the autonomy required to ensure the needs of students were met, along with a minimal administrative burden. This meant the maximum possible funding could be spent on front-line deployment, ensuring students reaped the most achievable benefit. In fact, the audit regime ensured no more than 20 per cent of any funding was spent away from direct support, and that every penny was accounted for in actual spending in any given year.

Wind forward to today’s more hostile environment, and we are faced with a multitude of challenges within the system. Local authorities have been added into the mix and a significant proportion of funding is now being used to manage these additional layers of bureaucracy. The number of posts within both local authorities and providers has increased exponentially.

Jobs have been created to compete over who can provide the most eloquent arguments

Worryingly, however, these posts have not, as one might hope, been created to improve the quality of the offer, but to compete over who can provide the most eloquent arguments for why a student should or should not be eligible for element two and three funding.

The resulting impact is a reduction in funding being provided to support the young people, many of whom are some of the most vulnerable in our society. In fact, evidence provided by the Department for Education itself suggests the volume of tribunals is increasing significantly as more and more parents and young people are told that they are not eligible for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or that they are unable to access their placement of choice.

While a strong argument can certainly be made that the amount of funding in the high-needs system is simply insufficient, I do feel that the first place to start would be to remove unnecessary bureaucracy.

The first step to achieving this would be to change the relationship between local authorities and providers, based on the mutual understanding that the young person should be placed at the heart of the process. We must work hard to agree that providers are not, as some local authorities would claim, “trying to game the system to achieve margin in this work” and conversely, that local authorities are not trying to “drive down costs to use the money in other parts of the education system”. Neither is helpful, and stereotypes and assumptions of this nature are certainly not making for harmonious relationships.

So rather than waste precious resources constantly arguing about individual students, why couldn’t we have a country-wide return to the block-grant funding system? Block grant funding enables providers to plan the service for the whole, rather than the individual constituent parts. It gives the provider the flexibility to deliver a whole service, rather than having to tag costs at an individual level and claim in year. The agreement is also in advance of the year, enabling the provider to plan the service rather than being forced to react.

Whether that comes through local authorities or not, I am convinced we can save significantly on administration costs and maybe, just maybe, we can be trusted to do the right thing collectively for our young people.