Commissioning: Rethinking SEND support

Now the SEND transfer deadline has passed, councils must embed a joint approach to commissioning, says Toni Badnall-Neill.

The Children and Families Act and SEND Code of Practice 2014 place a duty on local authorities and partner agencies to jointly commission services for children and young people aged 0-25 with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). However, this is an area of the SEND reforms that has proved challenging to implement. Now the 1 April deadline for transferring statements of SEN to education, health and care (EHC) plans has passed, evidence of good practice is emerging for this area of the reforms - commissioning and delivering joined-up services to improve outcomes for these children and their families. Research has identified three key themes.

1. Getting the basics right

A Department for Education evaluation of parents' EHC plan experience found that where plans looked at a range of needs, better outcomes were experienced by children and families than where plans focused solely on education. A new national trial to enable parents to appeal to SEND tribunals on the health and care, as well as education, elements of these plans is likely to facilitate further integration.

Collaborative working by professionals makes a clear difference to user experience; however, strategic leadership and planning for joint commissioning also needs to be in place to make a difference across the whole system. Where this is the case, the challenge for commissioners is balancing the drive to devolve funding and micro-commissioning to families with the need to commission at a wider level. The "Making it Personal 2" programme by KIDS offers guidance on strategic commissioning and developing Personal Budgets.

2. Joint commissioning shared vision

Analysis of Ofsted local area reports shows areas with effective joint commissioning arrangements are those whose leaders are committed to the principles of the SEND reforms, and which have established procedures for joint working.

A shared vision between education, health and social care agencies as to what is meant by joint commissioning is essential to develop partnerships at a strategic and operational level. Several of the SEND Pathfinder areas, such as Nottingham, established integrated commissioning units so that commissioners can work more holistically.

Another element identified as lacking in local area reports were joint commissioning plans - crucial for understanding the commissioning landscape of an area, the services that will be jointly commissioned, the outcomes to be achieved and how these will be measured.

3. Better sharing of information

Joint arrangements can complicate the basic commissioning principles of "understand, plan, do, review" by the need to apply these processes across two or more agencies, but a key aspect of this identified by Ofsted is the challenge of understanding what the needs of children and young people with SEND are and the impact that service delivery has on their outcomes.

Effective systems need to be in place to collect and monitor data on service users and the activity and impact of services, alongside accurate and realistic self-evaluation. Best practice includes using SEND information from joint strategic needs assessments and forecasting how the volume and types of needs will change in the future. Data from individual EHC plans should also be tracked to contribute to strategic intelligence - which means implementing information sharing protocols between partner agencies. This information can be used to develop outcome-based service specifications and, with effective performance management, used to hold providers and commissioners to account.

Joint commissioning in wider context

Joint commissioning can take many forms, from integrated services with pooled budgets to matrices of teams commissioning with separate funding under memoranda of understanding. However, local areas should consider jointly commissioning with regard to:

Adult services The reforms make provision for children and young people aged 0-25, and many local areas are now taking a "lifetime" or "people" approach to commissioning. Joint working here means that young adults have better transitions and can achieve better long-term outcomes.

Providers Good engagement with providers can develop the market and lead to better-integrated and effective services.

Children, young people and families Co-production is a key element of the reforms and makes a real difference to outcomes. Embed client experience in commissioning.

"Hard to hear" groups Local areas need to identify and work with vulnerable groups - looked-after children and those placed out of area, young offenders, families who may frequently move area and those affected by domestic abuse.


  • New Measures to Support Children With Send, DfE/Nadhim Zahawi MP, 2018
  • Experiences of Education, Health and Care plans: A Survey of Parents and Young People, DfE, 2017
  • Local Area Send Inspections: One Year On, Ofsted, 2017
  • SEND Pathfinder Information Pack - Joint Commissioning, Mott MacDonald, 2015
  • How to Commission for Personalisation - Guidance for Commissioners and Others in Children and Young People's Services, KIDS/DfE, 2014

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