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Safety Valve Update - 26 March 2024

DfE have rejected BCP’s Safety Valve plan, but what does this mean for SEND provision, children and families?

Safety Valve Update - 26 March 2024
By: Rachel Filmer  | 

It’s been a big few weeks in the world of Safety Valve, so I wanted to write an update on where we are, what this means, and what’s next for us at BCP Alliance for Children & Schools.

Those who have been following the blog or the news will have seen several key updates. Firstly, our legal letter requesting that the full BCP Safety Valve proposal, including the Dedicated Schools Grant deficit management plan, be released. Back in January, on the day of our first protest, I made the same request to Graham Farrant, and repeated this again when some of us met with him in February. There have been claims that the public don’t understand what has been proposed, hence the request. As yet, there has been no definitive response – we will update you accordingly.

On Friday 15th March, we heard that BCP will not be joining Safety Valve at this time. By Monday 18th, we had seen a letter from the Department for Education detailing the reasons for this – according to the letter, BCP’s 15 year proposal was just too costly for the DfE, but there’s still the small matter of the enormous SEND deficit so there will be ongoing work with the DfE and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to find a “solution” to this issue. Of course, parents, schools and those familiar with the system could provide a lot of potential solutions which wouldn’t put vulnerable children at risk of further harm, but Safety Valve consultations haven’t been forthcoming anywhere. In fact, in Bristol, their application was kept entirely secret from July 2023 to March 2024, sneaking it into a cabinet meeting just in time to rubber stamp mayoral sign off of any Safety Valve agreement that comes back.

This is a programme that thrives in the dark, a fact that’s not lost on the DfE. In their letter to BCP, they mention the particular press attention that BCP’s application has received, and offer their assistance with “lines to take” in press coverage about the refusal. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they took that advice, since the spin placed on this development has been unusually deft.

BCP now claim that they opened their Safety Valve plans up to public scrutiny, and that they acted with integrity by refusing to submit a plan that would cut services below statutory minimum levels.

Those who’ve been playing close attention, however, know that this is not the reality. BCP didn’t open their plan up to scrutiny. By 3rd of January, the proposal had not been seen by anyone outside of officers. The information submitted to Schools Forum gave some alarming information, and that resulted in heavy questioning and the scrutiny committee insisting that they get to see the plans. Everything that happened since has happened against their will, including the requirement for full council to vote on an agreement, and none of it would have been possible without campaigning and the assistance of concerned councillors.

This stance also ignores the fact that the length of the proposal had nothing to do with integrity. We have seen the steps that would need to be taken to meet targets for a five year plan, and some are literally impossible to achieve. Zero post 16 provision costs and zero exclusions, for example. The 15 year plan would absolutely require the cutting of provision below statutory minimums, given that even the current level of overspend is not leading to statutory duties being met. This is clear even to BCP, since their own documentation includes increased judicial reviews and tribunals as risks of the 15-year plan.

What’s really staggering here is that local authorities are willing to submit plans that can’t legally or practically be followed, and which won’t resolve their sizeable deficits even if they could. Several Safety Valve agreements are publicly disintegrating. New information reported by Schools Week shows that five agreements have been suspended, with £17.7m of £22.2m expected funding being withheld. A further two agreements have been extended. Some local authorities are being forced into an enhanced monitoring scheme, and why? Because local authorities are universally being under-funded for SEND provision, and are now being asked to fix this with further cuts.

As for us, our fight is not over – we still need to monitor developments of Safety Valve here as well as the forthcoming SEND Improvement plan, due at the end of April. We are also liaising with campaigners from other Safety Valve areas to see what we can do nationally.

In the meantime, we are hosting SEND solicitor Michael Charles who’s coming down to do a talk for parents on navigating the SEND and EHCP process utilising your child’s legal rights. It’s going to be an incredibly helpful event – you can book your tickets here.