Councils have seized millions of pounds in extra funding designated for special schools, with “shameful” plans afoot to let them evade passing on more rises next year.
The move means special schools are being starved of extra cash that instead is being passed on to their mainstream counterparts.
Last year’s spending review promised £1.6 billion extra for schools this year to cover increased cost pressures. Of this £1.2 billion was passed to mainstream schools directly under the Schools Supplementary Grant (SSG).
But the £325 million funding increase allocated for special and alternative provision schools goes to councils as part of their high-needs budget. These schools were told to “discuss” potential increases with their local authority.
Schools Week has found at least two cash-strapped councils who kept up to £4.3 million of additional high-needs funding this year. Others said they were still in talks with schools.
To resolve this next year, ministers will introduce a minimum funding guarantee (MFG) that will require councils to increase special schools’ top-up funding by 3 per cent in 2023-24.
But in another blow to the special schools sector, the government has said councils can ask to keep the cash to plug black holes.
Rob Williams, a senior policy adviser at the leaders’ union NAHT, said this was a “shameful and indefensible decision and shows that this government does not appear to prioritise the needs of our most vulnerable pupils”.
“Instead, they seem content to see local authorities use funding that should be used for SEND support and provision, be redirected to plug a local deficit.”
Special schools hardest-hit by pay rise costs
Special schools have been hardest hit by unfunded pay rises as their pupils’ additional needs generally mean staffing costs make up a larger part of their budgets.
Graham Quinn, the chair of Special School Voice, said budgets in real terms have fallen 25 to 30 per cent in the past eight years.
It was “totally untenable and unacceptable”, with schools closing hydrotherapy pools, cutting back holiday provision and compromising their statutory objectives to deliver education, health and care plans.
Kirklees Council kept its £2.4 million “in order to maintain levels of funding for 2022-23”. The council has a dedicated schools grant (DSG) deficit of more than £30 million and is on the government’s “safety-valve” programme, where it is given a bail-out in exchange for cutting costs.
A spokesperson said there was “no expectation through discussions” with the Education and Skills Funding Agency that the additional cash had to be passed on.
“In Kirklees we are continuing to make a huge commitment to supporting children and young people with additional needs.”
In an FOI response, Hillingdon Council in north London said its “agreement” was that its £1.9 million was used “to further fund dedicated school grant-related expenditure”. The high-needs budget formed part of DSG. The council did not respond to comment.
A decision is still to be taken in Stoke-on-Trent, also a safety-valve council. An FOI response says it will use some of the funds for the minimum funding guarantee next financial year.
Trust threatens judicial review over SEND funding
Schools Week understands one academy trust, which wishes to remain anonymous, sent a letter before action threatening judicial review to three local authorities as they did not pass any extra funding on to schools. The councils then agreed a 4 per cent rise.
Decisions also show a postcode lottery. In Salford, just 12 per cent of £1.9 million was passed on to special schools. In Doncaster, special schools top-up rates increased by 4 per cent for 2022-23. Croydon increased top-up funding by 5 per cent.
Recognising that some councils have already passed the extra cash on, the 3 per cent rise in MFG will be compared to funding base lines in 2021-22.
But the government told Schools Week that councils could still request the secretary of state’s permission to exclude some or all of their schools from the top-up funding requirement. No decisions relating to next year had been made yet.
Julia Harden, a funding specialist at heads’ union ASCL, said the increased MFG was a “step in the right direction”.
“But the underlying problem is that the government is not providing enough money to support children with special educational needs, and the complexities of different funding pots is a case of shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. Special schools and the young people they serve deserve better.”
DfE said it is “committed to providing a world class education system for all children, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, which is why we have increased high needs funding to £9.1 billion overall this year”.