Government SEND savings plan will barely dent council deficits

'It can't solve financial concerns. And in practice, it'll just heap more risk downwards'

'It can't solve financial concerns. And in practice, it'll just heap more risk downwards'

29 Sep 2023, 5:00


Cash-strapped councils getting government help to make their SEND services “sustainable” will still be left with huge deficits on their education budgets, even if predicted savings under the scheme bear fruit.

Councils’ figures show that measures proposed under the Delivering Better Value in SEND (DBV) programme will not dent billions of pounds in cumulative budget deficits over the next five years.

By this time, these deficits are scheduled to have returned to general fund balance sheets, threatening councils’ overall financial solvency.

Matt Keer, a contributor to the Special Needs Jungle website, said the programme “won’t please anyone. It can’t solve the frontline SEND provision crisis.

“It can’t solve central and local government’s financial concerns. And in practice, it’ll just heap more risk downwards, on to schools, and ultimately on to children and young people with SEND.”

Figures from 21 of the 55 councils on the DBV scheme show, without any measures to cut costs, they would be heading for a combined £3.1 billion cumulative deficit on their Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) budgets by 2027 to 2028.

‘Best-case’ forecast cuts barely a quarter

Under the councils’ “best-case” forecasts, the DBV savings will cut this figure by a combined £807 million – a reduction of barely a quarter that would still leave deficits totalling £2.3 billion.

Our findings are based on council documents and freedom of information requests.

A report at a Bracknell Forest council meeting in September said the DBV scheme “at inception” was to “set out how the local authority will reach a sustainable financial position”.

But it added: “Findings from all [DBV] tranche one local authorities were consistent in being unable to find the scale of savings required to reach a sustainable financial position.”

The council predicts savings of about £4.3 million, which will still leave it with a £42.1 million cumulative deficit by 2028.

Bracknell is one of four DBV councils who have now been invited to join the separate Safety Valve cost-cutting scheme, which offers large government bailouts in return for meeting tough financial targets.

The others are Cheshire East, Wiltshire and the merged Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole.

By contrast, the government only provides up to £1 million under the DBV scheme to each council that has signed up.

Councils still predict massive deficits

Consultancy firm Newton Europe has a £19.5 million contract to help DBV councils find better ways to manage their high-needs SEND finances..

In May, Hampshire published a forecast that showed its cumulative DSG deficit will reach £717 million by 2028 without mitigations.

However, in what the council describes as the most likely scenario, DBV savings measures will only reduce this by £157 million – leaving the council’s DSG budget £560 million in the red.

Even under what the council labels an “optimistic” scenario, factoring in the upper bound of potential DBV savings, the cumulative deficit will be £517 million by 2028.

If all DBV measures are rolled out and take effect immediately – which the council says “isn’t possible within the funding envelope or current staffing” – the cumulative deficit will be £476 million.

In every one of these scenarios, the cumulative deficit will still be increasing in 2027-28, suggesting that even the in-year budgets will be running at a deficit in five years’ time.

Cheshire East is in a similar position. Its unmitigated cumulative DSG deficit of £535.7 million by 2028 falls to £306.9 million when savings plans are factored in. But DBV only contributes £27.4 million of the forecast £228.8 million cumulative savings.

Council wants to build ‘SEN capacity in schools’

Among Hampshire’s proposed measures are three early intervention pilots “to build SEN support capacity in schools”, increased use of “strengths-based” approaches to “control high-needs costs” and greater council engagement in annual reviews of EHCPs “to right size plans and focus on increasing independence”.

A spokesperson for the council said: “While a certainly valuable intervention, the DBV programme is a relatively small part of our much wider response to the complex demands we face and will not in itself eradicate the in-year deficit.”

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) forecasts its cumulative DSG deficit will reach £301 million by 2027-28 if nothing is done to bring costs down. But it believes the DBV scheme will save just £10 million.

It has identified four opportunities for potential savings – increased SEN support to reduce the need for EHCPs, greater use of mainstream school provision, increased SEND spaces and better use of special school spaces, and clearing the backlog of annual reviews to limit the duration of additional provision in some EHCPs.

Richard Burton, BCP’s portfolio holder for children and young people, says the cost of providing support is “simply greater than the funding we receive”.

Early intervention and more mainstream support

Many council DBV plans focus on early intervention measures and teaching more SEND children in mainstream schools.

Their forecast savings are often drawn from panels looking at a sample of case reviews of local children with EHCPs and assessing how many could have had their needs better met in improved mainstream settings or with early intervention rendering EHCPs unnecessary.

Councils then calculate the medium-term savings that might be achieved.

For example, West Sussex’s panel concluded that 70 per cent of children and young people in specialist settings could have been better supported in mainstream settings or special support centres, which support children with EHCPs in mainstream schools.

A DBV update published by Bracknell Forest this summer said that “during case reviews, practitioners and professionals identified that in 29 per cent of cases an EHCP being issued was not required to meet the [youngster’s] needs”.

However, these panels are led by practitioners rather than parents

Catriona Moore, policy manager at special needs charity IPSEA, says that  putting a child with special educational needs in a mainstream school and “hoping for the best” will not work without the resources the child needs.

SEN support does not work for many children because “it’s currently not on a statutory footing [short of an EHCP], so there’s nothing that is compelling schools to make that provision”.

‘None of these measures will survive SEND tribunal’

Keer also says that “at individual pupil level, none of these measures will survive contact with SEND tribunal or the ombudsman unless the provision turns up. And there’s little sign that it will.

Matt Keer
Matt Keer

“Most of the DBV programme’s recommendations require mainstream and state special schools to deliver much more, and their capacity and resources have never been as threadbare as they are right now.”

A DfE spokesperson says it is wrong to interpret the success or failure of the DBV from initial budget forecasts while the programme is still in its early phases.

The programme is a part of wider reform work set out in the SEND and AP Improvement Plan, “which taken together will help local authorities effectively and sustainably manage their high-needs systems – delivering high-quality services for parents and balancing their books.”

The high-needs budget will also rise to £10.5 billion by 2024-25, which is 60 per cent more than in 2019-2020.

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