Councils proposal to transfer special educational needs funding rejected by government

Cambridgeshire County Council headquaters Shire Hal. Picture: Archant

Cambridgeshire County Council headquaters Shire Hal. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

The council had previously asked the government to approve a 1.8 per cent transfer out of the county’s “schools block” budget

Cuts in support for Cambridgeshire students with special educational needs and disabilities are expected this year as the sector faces a £6.6 million shortfall.

Cambridgeshire County Council's latest and last effort to shift more education funding to its "high needs" budget for the year failed on Tuesday (February 25).

The council had previously asked the government to approve a 1.8 per cent transfer out of the county's "schools block" budget - a government grant directly for primary and secondary schools - to the "high needs block" budget, which supports a range of special education needs and disability (SEND) programmes and support, including special schools, as well as behavioural support.

When the government blocked the 1.8 per cent transfer, the council then attempted to pass a 0.5 per cent transfer, which is the most it can move between its ring-fenced grants without government approval - but the Schools Forum rejected that proposal on Tuesday.

The transfer would have reduced the £6.6 million budget shortfall by £1.85m.

Ahead of the decision, the council's director for education, Jonathan Lewis, told the Schools Forum that the county's high needs education services face changes and cuts whatever they decided to do.

Most Read

He said: "We have been very clearly directed by the secretary of state to implement cuts in funding for high needs children. That's the reality. We are very open. If people think there are better ways of dealing with it, I think put your hand up now and tell me, because this is obviously going to be very serious. But we can't see any other way".

The Schools Forum was divided over whether to approve the 0.5 per cent transfer and voted 8-7 to reject.

After the decision had been made, Mr Lewis said: "We don't want to affect children's education so we are going to be very careful about the changes we make".

He added: "We will have to reduce services to children and young people. We are cutting, essentially, what they are being offered. And that's really challenging for us because we still need to meet need.

"The legal obligation is still to meet the need - it will have to be in a different way. Whilst we talk about cuts, we will also need to talk about service transformation and different ways of doing the same thing".

The council say all changes will be subject to consultation.

Dr Kim Taylor OBE, headteacher of Spring Common Academy, a special school in Huntingdon, argued in the Schools Forum for a transfer from the general schools budget to high needs.

"These special needs children are everyone's children. Our strategy in SEND is everyone's business," she said. "We can't end up in a system where we only support the most able children - but we are starting to get into that".

She argued that the high needs sector took pressures off schools, which would then struggle to cope if the sector is cut back too far.

She said the £1.85m would make "a significant difference" and said the schools' deficit belongs "to all of us. It's a school debt that has accumulated".

Headteacher at Ely St John's Primary School, Liz Bassett, said: "I don't think the debt belongs to the schools - it belongs to the government. I still don't understand how the government can say that a child is worth £1,500 less under one authority than it is under another. I don't think the debt is being created by the schools, I think it is being created by the fact that we are not being given enough in the first place".

Headteacher of St Matthew's Primary School, Tony Davies, warned against "artificially disguising" the county's high needs deficit and needs.

He said the argument to vote against the transfer was not about reducing support for SEND pupils, but how best to support them.

"It's not that we don't care about children in the high needs block, because actually we are working with them. But it's just saying what's the best way to support these children?" he said.

He argued that if the schools take over the deficit and extra SEND provision, then the government may not see the reason to step in and provide extra funding, adding that if it was an inevitability that the non-special schools take on more of the work, then they should not be giving up their own budgets.

"If the money stays in schools then it doesn't disappear into the hole of the deficit," he said.

If the government does write off the high needs deficit, he said, it would then be a mistake and money lost if they were to absorb reductions in schools' funding now.

Ahead of the vote, the chair of the Schools Forum, CEO of Anglian Learning, Jon Culpin, said: "it is the most challenging debate we have had".

Proposals to change the service provision will now be put to the county council's children and young people committee before going to public consultation.

Speaking after the government blocked the original transfer of funds, the council said: "The implication of this decision is that we will have £6.6million less for high needs funding in 2020/21 and we will have to make some immediate changes to the support we provide for children with special educational needs and disabilities".

Despite the discussion on cuts and changes to services, funding for the county's schools is due to rise this year. The total schools grant from government to Cambridgeshire will be £368.2million, up 6.7 per cent compared with 2019/20, the latest council figures show.

Funding for pupils with SEND has also increased, by around nine per cent, to £75million.

But the council says demand is increasing faster, and the sector has overspent for several years, leaving a deficit.

Mr Lewis told the Schools Forum: "We are still seeing a huge amount of increase in requests for Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) coming through. We are running at three times the level we were 12 months ago for requests".

Asked for details on what changes the high needs sector can expect to see, Mr Lewis said those decisions were still to be made.

He said at the moment "it's a resource allocation reduction rather than a service reduction, although there could be service reductions as we develop our proposals".

But he said some changes were already underway. He said the council is "cutting back" on the amount of out-of-school tuition it provides, while staying within its statutory obligations.

"We are also going to stop topping up schools where they have exceptionally high cases of SEND that exceed their notional SEND budget," he said.