Schools

Six in 10 councils face DfE intervention to cut SEND deficits

All councils also face new guidance on making spending on pupils with special educational needs and disabilities 'sustainable'

All councils also face new guidance on making spending on pupils with special educational needs and disabilities 'sustainable'

23 Jun 2022, 17:08

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More than half of councils now face Department for Education intervention to cut their spending on pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.

Children and families minister Will Quince formally launched its “Delivering Better Value in SEND” programme today.

The government informed 55 councils with substantial deficits they will receive support to make services “sustainable”, as funding growth is set to slow and wider SEND reforms will “take time”.

Officials and SEND financial and practice advisers will help the councils and their stakeholders “identify and address the key drivers” of deficits. The DfE will provide “project and change management capacity”, and is partnering with consultancy firm Newton Europe and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

Tender documents last year showed the DfE advertising for 15 advisers as part of the £1.5 million scheme, with plans to establish an index with a “value score” for each council.

The DfE has already said another 34 councils with larger deficits have received or will receive “safety valve agreements”, committing to significant savings in exchange for multimillion-pound bailouts. It stresses they are “not a cost-cutting exercise”.

It means 58.6 per cent of England’s 152 local education authorities now face direct Whitehall involvement in deficit-cutting plans.

Councils face smaller funding hikes and ring-fence removal

The DfE acknowledged the system is “under pressure”, but said its recent SEND review reforms will not “in themselves” tackle deficits, and take time. Resources “can and should” be used more effectively in the meantime.

In new guidance and recommendations for all councils on managing high needs budgets, they are also warned they face “smaller” hikes to high needs block allocations in 2023-24 and 2024-25 than the past three years.

They are told to assume a 5 per cent rise between 2022-23 and 2023-24, and 3 per cent beyond that.

Meanwhile dedicated school grant deficits will no longer be ring-fenced from councils’ wider finances from 2023, so councils willl have to show they can cover deficits “from their future available reserves”. Becoming more sustainable is therefore “crucial” now.

The advice is based on research into 10 councils said to be managing needs effectively – though their average spending has still jumped by almost a quarter since 2018.

Schools may get support, budgets, training or to-do lists

Recommendations include:

  • Equipping mainstream schools to meet as many needs as possible via core provision, through training and specialist support services. Some best practice councils co-produce documents telling schools what to “ordinarily provide”.
  • Alternative provision and special school places should only be used “strategically”.
  • Making SEND and finance officers jointly accountable for managing high needs budgets, and investing “properly” in SEND leadership.
  • Reviewing joint commissioning to get “rebalanced” contributions from health and social care, with “many” council high needs budgets funding health and care duties.
  • Considering devolving resources to schools or school groups.
  • Learning from case study councils’ “culture of partnership” with parents and schools of all kinds, with “co-ownership” of deficit management with schools. Some, like Camden, involved mainstream heads in working groups addressing issues.

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