County council consultation on plans to create ‘clusters’ for SEN provision in mainstream schools

Changes to SEN provision in mainstream schools

Kent County Council is consulting on plans to make changes to Special Educational Needs provision in mainstream schools by creating ‘clusters’ to work together and share resources.

The clusters will be of between eight and 14 schools each, consisting of primary and secondary, to cover children aged five to 16 and young people attending sixth form in state-funded schools.

It would result in KCC, schools, the NHS, and other SEN service providers working together to enable SEN support and services to be accessed more easily and delivered in a new way.

The county council says shared resources, rather than smaller amounts of money attached to individuals, would allow schools to explore more options and would bring the advantage of economies of scale to buying support provision. KCC would remain responsible and accountable for administration of the shared resources.

The consultation document says: “There may be several children across a cluster of three schools who have similar needs, and by working together there is the opportunity to buy time from a specialist worker to support pupils in all the schools, something that would not be possible for each individual school.

“These proposals are about shifting the allocation of a proportion of the HNF to groups of schools, to ensure that funding can be allocated by school leaders more effectively to meet individual pupil needs.”

Cluster Panels

Each cluster would establish a Cluster Panel, consisting of headteachers, SEN coordinators and other school leadership representatives of the mainstream primary and secondary schools within their cluster.

Panel members would have direct experience and expertise in organising and providing support in schools to children and young people with SEN.

A District Dashboard would tracks outcomes at a school and district level and be available to all clusters to provide evidence of outcomes, measure improvements and increase transparency between schools.

Current system

Currently Kent schools operate individually, making decisions concerning pupils with SEN. KCC says this leads to inconsistency in mainstream SEN inclusion and provision with potentially some pupils placed in specialist provision who would be educated successfully in mainstream settings in other local authorities, or in other mainstream schools within the county.

Parental consent to the additional funding application is required, and schools liaise with parents on progress, outcome of decisions, and the ways in which any additional funding will be used. Allocations of HNF are typically for individual pupils, for one year, with schools required to resubmit an application if they want the funding to continue. Due to the current system, decisions are generally made by the HNF Officer alone.

Some 39.7%3 of pupils in Kent with an Education, Health, and Care Plan (EHCP) attend mainstream provision.

Finances and improvement notice

The move to clusters has been prompted by financial needs and requirements of a progress plan after KCC was issued with an improvement notice by school and health watchdogs Ofsted and CQC earlier this year.

KCC says demand for services to support children with SEN has grown faster than increases in grant funding provided by the government – known as the High Needs Block.

This has resulted in KCC incurring an annual overspend of up to £50 million  and accumulating a total deficit of £140 million by March 2023.

Last year KCC entered into a Safety Valve agreement with the Department for Education, which means the DfE is making a £140 million contribution towards the accumulating deficit, alongside a further £82 million contribution from KCC  to balance the high needs budget by 2027-28.

The Safety Valve Agreement requires KCC to take specified actions, including the need to “implement a countywide approach to ‘Inclusion Education’, to further build capacity in mainstream schools to support children and young people with [SEND].”

An Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) joint inspection in 2019 identified nine areas of weakness in KCC’s effectiveness in implementing disability and SEN reforms.

KCC was issued with an Improvement Notice on 31 March 2023 because a re-visit in 2022 found failure to make sufficient progress against all nine areas of weakness. This required KCC to produce an Accelerated Progress Plan (APP) ‘to deliver appropriate and sustainable improvement.’ The consultation and cluster proposal are part of the requirements of that progress plan.

‘Improved outcomes’

KCC says it has been talking to schools, parents, and to Special Educational Needs staff across the county to understand what change is needed and that research shows more consistent and effective mainstream support will lead to improved outcomes for children and young people, and help parents to have greater confidence in the mainstream offer for their child.

Rory Love, KCC’s Cabinet member for Education and Skills, said the key priorities are to ensure there is greater consistency of support for children and young people with special educational needs, that KCC’s statutory responsibilities are fulfilled in a timely manner, and that spending is aligned with the High Needs Funding that is available to KCC.

He said: “These proposals take a big step to helping all pupils with SEN thrive at school, and feel included and supported in their local communities.  That will mean they are better prepared for a healthy, productive, and happy life.

“I encourage everyone with an interest in this topic to complete the questionnaire, which can be accessed from the consultation webpage on KCC’s website.”

The consultation runs until 24 January, 2024, and full details, together with the questionnaire, can be viewed at:

Alternatively, a paper copy of the questionnaire is available on request.

A range of face-to-face events will take place to explain the proposals and to respond to questions. Details of these events will be available through the consultation webpage, newsletters and bulletins to schools and directly to parents/carers.

The responses to the consultation will be analysed and a report published on the consultation webpage. The report will be considered by KCC’s Children, Young People and Education Cabinet Committee in Spring 2024 for consideration and recommendation.

A decision is expected to be taken by the Cabinet Member for Education and Skills and any changes would start to take effect shortly afterwards.