Exploring how to join up finance, needs, and operational information for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) in order support better-informed planning, commissioning and funding decisions, and sustainably meet growing need for additional support.

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

Problem overview

There is a widely acknowledged crisis in SEND funding and provision:

  • Since 2016 nearly half of Local Authorities (LAs) have been asked to submit a written statement of action following poor Ofsted/CQC inspections on SEND.
  • Around 8 out of 10 LAs in England have a deficit in their High Needs Budget (HNB), which is used to provide top-up funding for children and young people with SEND.

LAs have ultimate responsibility for children with SEND, but lack direct control over the system which is dispersed across different schools, private and voluntary providers, and others. This means that LAs need strong leadership to unite local partners and deliver quality provision that enables children with SEND to live happy and independent lives.

What is causing the problem?

It is time consuming and complicated to bring together statistical information about needs and provision with finance data about top-up funding for schools. This is a result of historical systems and team structures which have meant that finance staff are siloed from their operational colleagues. This has resulted in leadership (AD for SEND, Director of Education, service managers) being unable to confidently make strategic decisions on SEND. These include:

  • Individual EHC Plans: are schools implementing the SEND Code of Practice consistently? Are EHC Plan applications justified?
  • Service planning: are services/placements for SEND pupils meeting needs? Where is early intervention required? How many special school places are required in future years? In which areas are costs rising most?
  • Prioritising: assessing where HNB funding is most needed, which schools are underperforming to providing poor value for money for SEND provision?

The cause is common to multiple authorities

A recent DfE study of SEND provision, which involved case study visits to 7 authorities across the country, found that none of the participating authorities systematically or consistently join up their pupil needs and finance data. This is also the case across all authorities in Greater Manchester.

This issue is also common to other services and cohorts. Children’s and Adults Social Care teams do not have integrated data on the needs and costs of children and adults in care placements. This limits commissioner ability to make more effective planning decisions.

Stakeholders and dependencies

Stakeholders include staff across LA SEND and finance teams, LA analysts, and SEND leadership. Case management providers (e.g. Capita, Synergy) often hold operational data, and a solution may require adaptations to data management systems.

Oldham recently ran a year long project with a supplier linking operational and finance data in order to run analyses which informed their 3-5 year strategic plan. Many of the project hypotheses below are motivated by that work.

Hypothesis 1 – The Council SEND leadership and operational teams need access to similar joined up finance and pupil need data to effectively plan and commission support for children and young people with SEND (e.g. holding schools/settings to account, service planning, forecasting, targeting).

Approach to testing hypothesis:

  • User research: semi-structured interviews across all project partner Councils to understand user roles, needs and constraints.
  • User stories: synthesise interview transcripts to summarise key needs identified and create user personas. These will be presented to interviewees for comment and validation.
  • Prioritisation: present findings to the wider project team to understand which needs are common across roles and teams, and to identify priority areas.

Hypothesis 2 – systems and processes in LAs do not join up finance and pupil need data as part of business as usual.

 Approach to testing hypothesis:

  • Process and system mapping: review data systems and processes within each project partner Council to understand how they capture and store needs and finance data and to create blueprints.
  • Matching tables: assess the process of matching individuals across datasets (e.g. UPN) and where/how this is currently captured.

Hypothesis 3 – other projects and products do not meet user needs. Existing tools that run off public datasets (e.g. Local Authority Information Tool, LA High Needs Benchmarking Tool) are delayed and/or do not incorporate per-pupil finance information and match this to pupils needs data.

Approach to testing hypothesis: 

  • Desk research: review relevant products and projects operating in a similar space, including LA data tools, central government published reports/tools, and vendor offers.
  • User research: map out tools that LAs currently use to understand how they are used and what their limits are.

Hypothesis 4 a simple solution developed in partner authorities could meet user needs in other LAs: current, separate finance and pupil needs data sets can be matched and then structured in such a way as to perform simple analysis.

 Approach to testing hypothesis:

  • Solution design: design sprint with all project partners to develop solutions for prioritised user needs.

Testing with users: employ methods like Storyboarding, Co-Creation Sessions and Lean Canvases to test technical feasibility and validate that the suggested solutions meet needs.

National financial challenge

There is a widely acknowledged crisis in SEND funding and provision across the country. SEND and pressures on the HNB are one of the top three issues for Local Government according to the LGA. Even though £700m additional funding in 2020/21 was announced at the Spending Round the cumulative HNB deficit may be as large as £1.4bn or 25% of the annual DfE budget allocated for High Needs in England. This cost pressure is being driven by additional demand for top-up funding for pupils with SEND and for special school places both inside and outside the LA.

LA budget deficits

The project partners are no exception, with all three of them experiencing increasing HNB pressure and similar levels of overspend. In Oldham, for example, the 2018/19 deficit was £2.8 million, equivalent to 9% of the overall HNB budget. Without action Oldham’s HNB deficit could rise to around a £20 million 2022//23.

Internal time and resource costs

Accessing and using data to inform decision-making processes is a time-consuming task unless you have the right systems and reporting tools in place. While most LAs are set up to respond to annual statutory returns, they do not necessarily have the reports and tools necessary to effectively respond to ad hoc or more specific requests related to planning and commissioning. Both business analysts and finance team members must pull information from several different sources in order to carry out analysis, which is considered too costly due to current LA resource constraints.

Future costs of poor planning decisions

It is also important to take into account the cost of getting planning and commissioning decisions wrong. Part of the reason why there has been an increase in the use of Out of Borough (OOB) placements in Oldham, for example, is the lack of available special school provision within the LA. The unit cost of an OOB placement can be more than 2-3 times as high as an in-Borough special school placement, and it has been one of the key drivers of the LAs HNB budget deficit. If Oldham had the infrastructure in place to predict trends in needs and cost, the LA could have used the data to commission more special school places in-Borough and hence reduce the reliance on more expensive OOB placements.

Collaborative approach

  • Kick-off workshop – discuss and agree project objectives, roles and responsibilities, and high-level project roadmap; co-design initial user research materials
  • Show-and-tell – team meetings held at the end of each Sprint to share findings and discuss the focus of the next Sprint
  • Project management – Oldham will manage a public Trello board so that Sprint objectives, deadlines and workstreams are visible to all partners
  • Team Comms – we will hold daily ‘stand-ups’ (e.g. via Slack) to share key information and dependencies, and unpick blockages 

Iterative approach 

  • Sprints – we will organise the project into a series of 2-3 weeks Sprints to jointly set and work towards short-term objectives; these will be reviewed at the end of each Sprint depending on latest user research findings
  • Retrospectives – we will hold retrospectives at the project mid-point and end point, for instance using the Starfish / 3 Ls approach


Oldham’s SEND Transformation Assurance Board will have ultimate governance responsibility for the project. This brings together senior Council Directors for Education, Children’s, Early Years, Finance, and Health. There is also a GM-wide SEND Board, attended by ADs for SEND, which oversees collaboration and GM-wide partnership projects. This project will also report to this board.

Following the discovery phase, we are likely to require support in determining what the best structure for a shared data model might be and where this data is best held and accessed (e.g. should combined operational/finance data be held in a case management system? If so which one and in what form? How could it feed into dashboards or other usable tools to inform decision making?)

In order for the project to have national reach across many different LAs and types of LAs, we would also value support through a series of additional channels:

  • Support on ways of working: We have heard of other LAs attending the LCDU’s 3-day GDS Academy Agile For Teams Training, and would be interested in taking part in this or a similar training during the discovery. We believe it would give us a better understanding of agile approaches, improve our digital capability and ensure our engagement with stakeholders and users effectively captures user needs.
  • Extending the reach of our findings: We would value LDCU sharing our findings and amplifying our online communications through their wider networks, for example by retweeting our blogs.
  • Collaboration between partner LAs: We are keen to attend community events organised by LDCU to learn from other Local Authorities, share insights and promote the project. These events can provide a great platform for our work and help us with our ambitions for national scale.

Learning and developing: Feedback from the LDCU would help ensure we are following agile methodology, working in the open and producing effective outputs. We would encourage feedback from the LDCU on the design of user research materials and testing, as well as outputs such as user research reports and draft solution templates. By acting as a critical friend, the LDCU can help ensure continuous learning and high-quality outputs.