With cost pressures dominating all areas of council spend, commissioners support for learners with SEND and HNL (Special Educational Needs & Disability/High Needs Learners) has come under scrutiny in recent years.
Significant inflationary pressures derived from wage rises and changes of central government support has also ensured that the rise in spend drives this topic to the top of many managers’ pain points.
With this in mind, commissioners have identified FE budgets as an area for review, conscious of the need to ensure value for money. With costs for similar support packages varying by up to 20% in the same area, many spending reviews have been undertaken by local authorities across the country.
The main motivation for commissioners to undertake reviews is to better understand why spend varies so significantly per learner and/or college and to ensure that inflationary increases are justified. Here’s an insight into how local authorities are ensuring value for money.
The process often begins with cost samples of various learners supported across a range of needs and a range of colleges. The aim of such a sample is to achieve a representative spread of underlying costs that mirrors the current market.
Generally, the learners sampled are those due to start college in the next academic year although some authorities also undertake reviews of current learners.
To aid the process further, FE colleges need to provide a breakdown of all areas of spend relating to the learner, including the core costs, specialist facilities and environments for SEND and HNL learners. This must include detail on any additional costs, for instance carers that relate to specific learners that are on top of the ‘standard’ costs.
Not all colleges are keen to fill out these type of templates but with commissioner’s support, it is often possible to gain enough data to make meaningful comparisons.
The main outcome from these surveys is the underlying differences of specific cost drivers, particularly staffing. As you would expect the cost of staff represents a significant proportion of each learner’s package.
The underlying costs of Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) highlights these differences well; LSAs can vary from £18,500 to £21,500, a difference of 16.2%. This level of difference can sometimes be explained by the skill set required by some colleges, but it is certainly something that local authorities should be mindful of, especially when specialist or higher LSAs command a premium.
To facilitate meaningful comparison, research into job advertisements for LSAs in the local area can also help. This provides a benchmark to compare costs with solely relying on the returns from the colleges.
In addition to the explained variation of spend through varied pay rates, reviews can highlight different accounting practices for salary on costs. Some of these practices significantly raise the price of the packages, with not all being justified. This is clearly an area that commissioners could consider when negotiating package prices.
Other areas of spend that vary significantly are the central overheads attributed to each learner. This varies depending on the size and underlying costs of the facilities on offer at a particular college. Here commissioners should consider what services is received for the spend, and whether this is value for money for the individuals involved. These costs may not be relevant to learners that have no need for additional facilitates.
The outcome of these type reviews for local authorities is that it offers a significant step forward in how commissioners negotiate new learner packages with colleges. Armed with the knowledge of both a specific college’s costs, and also the most cost effective colleges in the area, it is possible to negotiate better value for money package costs, with greater transparency.
In addition, areas that are not value for money or higher than average can provide commissioners with data to enter meaningful dialogue with specific colleges on how to remodel services to make them more cost effective in the medium to long term. This will ensure that local authority budgets are more sustainable, and colleges can be confident that they are doing all they can to achieve value for money, whilst supporting learners to achieve their best in their learning environment.
Ray Hart is director at Valuing Care.