13 May 2023 


At IPSEA, our mission is clear: to ensure that every child and young person with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) gets the education they are entitled to by law. That's why we're deeply concerned about the Government's 'safety valve intervention programme' and its impact on children and young people across the country.

What is the safety valve intervention programme, you may ask? It's a series of agreements between the Department for Education (DfE) and a number of local authorities, designed to address overspending on high needs budgets. In essence, the DfE provides financial assistance to bail out local authorities facing deficits, with the condition that spending on SEND provision must be contained.

But here's where the problem lies: while the safety valve programme aims to reduce costs, its effect may actually be a reduction in provision for children and young people with SEND. Our recent research, conducted through Freedom of Information requests to local authorities, has unearthed some troubling findings.

What we uncovered

Across the board, local authorities are implementing measures to 'manage demand' for Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans. This includes setting targets to reduce the number of EHC needs assessments, often deeming requests from parents/carers as 'inappropriate', and implementing alternatives to the EHC needs assessment pathway.

Local authorities also aim to reduce the number of children and young people attending special schools and colleges. They are setting explicit targets for mainstream placements and view parents/carers exercising their right to appeal a placement as a 'culture of legal challenge' rather than a legitimate recourse for ensuring appropriate support. These actions not only undermine the rights of children and young people with SEND, but also risk local authorities exposing themselves to more legal challenges than ever before.

Efforts to limit out-of-area placements and targets to increase the number of plans local authorities cease to maintain each year are also being implemented, all in the name of cost-cutting. But at what cost to the wellbeing and educational outcomes of children and young people?

An unprecedented level of government scrutiny

Local authorities are held closely accountable by the DfE for meeting the conditions in their safety valve agreements – a higher level of accountability than the DfE has ever required from them in relation to meeting their legal duties to children and young people.

The DfE judges whether a local authority is making sufficient progress in meeting the conditions of the safety valve agreement before releasing the next tranche of funding.

What we want to see

The safety valve intervention programme fails to centre the needs of children and young people with SEND and instead focuses above all on reducing expenditure.

However, the law on supporting children and young people with SEND is clear and unchanged – they have the right to special educational provision that meets their individual needs. It’s difficult to see how children and young people’s rights can be upheld in a context where the overriding priority is cutting costs. That's why we have come to the conclusion that safety valve agreements don't help children and young people, and shouldn’t exist.

Our full report details all our research, providing a comprehensive overview of our findings. 


About the author

Catriona is responsible for IPSEA’s work in bringing about change by influencing the development of SEND policy nationally. Her background is in public policy and communications, and she has worked for a number of charities and public sector organisations, as well as in Parliament. In the past she has served as an elected councillor in a London borough, a special school governor and a charity trustee. Alongside her work, Catriona cares and advocates for her teenage daughter, who has complex needs. When there’s any spare time, she loves walking all over London and hiding in bookshops.

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