Special educational needs provision: will the drive to cut deficits inflict yet more damage on an already stricken sector?
Westminster, May 2019: Families march in protest at SEND funding
Recent years have seen the Department for Education ramp up spending on crisis-hit special education needs provision after long-term underfunding. But signs are it won’t be enough. Chaminda Jayanetti reports
Figures published earlier this year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that of 137 English councils for which it had data, 87 were forecasting a loss on their Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) budgets in 2021/22, adding to creaking multimillion-pound cumulative deficits built up over many years.
The extra funding available to the worst-hit councils under so-called “safety valve” agreements with the Department for Education (DfE) is making some difference – all 14 councils with these deals forecast an in-year deficit without the safety valve money, but only three did after including it. Safety valves will be expanded to cover 34 councils with 55 more brought into another, less prescriptive, scheme.
Financial improvements are visible but slow, like a supertanker turning to avoid a giant whirlpool. The whirlpool is a planned change in council accountancy rules set to kick in next April. In recent years, Whitehall has allowed councils to exclude their DSG deficits from calculations of their overall financial health – or to put it more bluntly, their financial solvency.
But from next spring, councils – particularly those without safety valve deals – will have to show they have enough money in their general reserves to cover the accumulated DSG deficits that weigh many down.
Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council (BCP) gives a flavour of things to come. The council is forecasting a cumulative DSG deficit of £37.4m at the end of this financial year – outweighing the forecast £31.3m it expects to hold as general reserves. Even with measures to reduce special educational needs and disabilites (SEND) expenditure, this gap is set to grow rapidly.
A BCP council report from February warned it was set to issue an s114 notice at the end of this financial year – effectively declaring de facto bankruptcy – leading to “an immediate and severe curtailing of activity to the provision of non-statutory services” and a hit to statutory services as well.
The Local Government Association warned more money is needed: “It was good the government provided much-needed additional funding to help councils meet the rising demand for support from children and young people with SEND. However, this has fallen short of enabling councils to eliminate high needs deficits.
South Gloucestershire is already cutting the 'top-up' rates it pays schools to help support SEND pupils
“This is why we are calling on the government to go further and faster and scrap high needs deficits which would help to significantly relieve the strain on councils’ budgets and better support children with SEND.
“We would also like to see a ‘statutory override’, where councils’ DSG deficits can be ringfenced away from other deficits, to be extended beyond next year, to help councils manage these financial pressures.”
SEND campaigners fear the drive to cut deficits will end up inflicting more damage on an already stricken sector. The safety valve deals and the DfE’s recommendations to other councils focus on early intervention to reduce the need for Educational Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), and more special schools to cut demand for expensive private placements.
“There are children for whom either it’s simply not cost effective to commission provision, or for which many of those children have already been through mainstream or maintained special [schools] and those placements have failed,” said SEND campaigner Tania Tirraoro.
The DfE’s emphasis on “demand management” of EHCPs and “stepping down” or ending existing EHCPs as needs reduce spark fears in a system already wracked by often unlawful gatekeeping. South Gloucestershire is already cutting the “top-up” rates it pays schools to help support SEND pupils – the council says this will bring its rates into line with those paid by other councils.
“I think it will be increasingly difficult for particular cohorts of children, particularly those with higher, more complex and low-incidence needs, to get the support they need to survive in school, let alone thrive,” said Tirraoro.
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