Councils forced to raid funds for overstretched state schools to support rise in number of special needs children

'It is regrettable that councils are only able to provide support to children with special education needs by using funding intended for all children. This is not a desirable or sustainable position'

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Sunday 13 May 2018 19:53 BST
The children were identified as doing well in school at age seven, but after that were not meeting their key stage milestones in reading, writing and numeracy
The children were identified as doing well in school at age seven, but after that were not meeting their key stage milestones in reading, writing and numeracy

Councils across England are being forced to raid funds intended for state schools to pay for extra support for children with special educational needs (SEN), according to alarming new figures.

Conservative leaders of county councils have called the situation “unsustainable” in a letter to the education secretary – and they have warned the quality of education in state schools is at risk.

An increase in demand has forced councils – which have a legal obligation to support children with SEN – to move funds from their school budgets to meet a shortfall in government funding.

State schools across the country may have to cut more teaching staff and rural schools could be forced to close if extra funding is not provided this year, County Councils Network members say.

Figures, shared exclusively with The Independent, reveal that almost £200m was overspent by county councils on the high-needs block – a grant for children with SEN – in just three years.

The survey from County Councils Network (CCN), which represents all county councils in England, found that eight authorities have transferred £43m of money earmarked for schools over the past four years to compensate for significant annual overspends and to honour their statutory duties.

Kent County Council had one of the highest projected overspends – a total of £23.8m – and they were forced to transfer £28m from schools funding over the last four years to make up the shortfall.

Paul Carter, chairman of CCN and the Conservative leader of Kent County Council, said a growing school population – as well as a rise of children diagnosed with autism and other special educational needs – had increased pressures on local authorities over recent years.

He said: “Schools have had to make significant sufficiency savings already to sustain anymore would materially affect the education of the pupils in their schools. We are on a cliff edge now.”

Cllr Carter and Ian Hudspeth, an executive member of CCN and the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council, have written to education secretary Damian Hinds to call on him to urgently increase the pot of money allocated to councils as they say it is insufficient to meet rising demand.

The letter to Mr Hinds says: “It is regrettable that councils are only able to properly provide support to children with special education needs by instead using funding that was intended for a different group of children. I am sure that you will agree that this is not a desirable or sustainable position.

“Whilst the sector hopes that there is an opportunity to put in place a long term solution through the forthcoming spending review, I would welcome an urgent discussion with you about how we can ensure that [the high needs block] is properly resourced in the current financial year.”

North Yorkshire County Council had to move £1.6m from its funding pot for schools to the high needs block this school year after facing a £4m deficit.

Patrick Mulligan, cabinet member for education at North Yorkshire County Council, said: “For the first time in many years we have seen schools going into deficit. We had 30 schools at the beginning of the year go into deficit and now at the end of the year we have 60.”

“It is very worrying. The government is so fixed on Brexit. There is no legislation going through on education,” he said.

And Cllr Mulligan is concerned that rural schools could be forced to close and staff could be cut if more resource is not provided by the government.

He said: “If the funding issue rears its head and we are not able to retain staff then the quality of education will decline. We have smaller rural schools here that could possibly get in a perilous state because of finances.

“We have had to close some schools recently and that is one of the worse things that can happen for the sustainability of a village.”

Julia Harnden, a funding specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is not right that it is necessary to move money between the blocks.

“This is just part of a set of symptoms that are causing schools to increase class sizes, reducing support assistants and cutting courses.”

Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “The Tories have created a crisis in school funding, and council leaders are right to warn that the system is becoming unsustainable.

“Schools should not have to choose between funding extra support for children with special educational needs and providing the basics that every child deserves in the classroom, but that has been a result of this government’s cuts.”

She added: “The education secretary and the chancellor promised every school a cash boost to their budget, but now they have abandoned their own guarantee.

“Schools have been left scrambling to fill the gaps in their budgets, with more cuts the inevitable consequence of their failure to give them the resources they need.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said: “Thanks to our reforms and the hard work of teachers 1.9m more pupils are in good or outstanding schools than in 2010.

“By 2020, core school funding will rise to a record £43.5b – its highest ever level and 50 per cent more per pupil in real terms than in 2000 – and the introduction of the National Funding Formula will address historic disparities in the system.

“The high needs budget for pupils with special educational needs is £6b this year – the highest on record. Thanks to the additional £1.3b funding announced last year, every local authority will see an increase in their high needs funding over the next two years.”

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