Revealed: Councils slice £67m from school budgets to prop up SEND deficits

Four-fold increase in the school funding councils have shifted to fill high needs budget blackholes

Four-fold increase in the school funding councils have shifted to fill high needs budget blackholes


More than 20 councils have been given ministerial approval to quietly slice £67 million from their schools budget to prop up gaping SEND funding black holes.

For the first time in recent years, every council that asked for approval was given the green light to move millions between the core schools and high needs funding pots.

Four years ago, nine in 10 applications from councils were rejected – reflecting the worsening state of council finances.

Geoff Barton, general secretary at the ASCL school leaders’ union, said: “We’re left with a situation of robbing Peter to pay Paul, of moving money between inadequate budgets in a system where there is simply insufficient funding to meet the level of need.”

If councils wish to transfer more than 0.5 per cent, or want to move 0.5 per cent or less of their core schools budget without agreement from their schools forum, they must get approval from the Department for Education.

For 2024-25, the government approved £67 million worth of transfers from 23 councils (see table below), figures obtained after a freedom of information request by Schools Week show.

This compares with at most £17 million from the three councils given approval in 2020-21.

It means the government has allowed £190 million to be sliced from school budgets by councils over the past five years.

‘A system under enormous strain’

Barton said that the transfers were “a reflection of a system that is under enormous strain and isn’t working as it should”.

Most of the councils who applied for transfers in 2024-25 were those who have high needs deficits. Fourteen are taking part in the government’s “safety valve” bailout programme, while six are in the “delivering better value in SEND” scheme.

Only two – Calderdale and Staffordshire – are not part of a government programme to get their high needs deficits under control.

Norfolk will transfer 1.5 per cent, or £9.5 million, of its schools’ budget next year. A council spokesperson said the transfers were “a key part” of its six-year “safety valve” deal agreed with the DfE, which includes a £70 million government bailout.

While it is taking money from schools, “a far greater amount of funding flows back into mainstream schools”, the council claimed.

Six years of transfers would total £64 million, the spokesperson said.

But £309 million will go into mainstream schools through a combination of extra top-up funding, increased specialist resource base provision and new “school and community teams” focused on SEN support pupils.

‘Double impact’

The next largest transfer was in Kent, where the council will slice 1.2 per cent, or £15 million, from its schools.

Frazer Westmorland, headteacher at Mundella Primary School in Folkestone, said the needs of pupils had increased since Covid, meaning any “reduction in funding directly to schools is going to have a double impact”.

North Somerset council said it had the “full support” of its schools to transfer 1 per cent, which equates to £1.6 million.

“Schools have needed to absorb a range of additional costs in recent years, so it is a mark of the strength of our relationship with them that they have felt able to agree to this,” a spokesperson added.

Hammersmith and Fulham council will transfer 1 per cent, equivalent to £1.2 million. A draft submission for its application to the government said a key driver was to “address budget pressure from cost inflation” after signing off its safety valve agreement.

The council also warned of “lower than originally forecast” high needs funding increases.

‘SEND system buckling’

Stephen Kingdom, campaign manager for the Disabled Children’s Partnership, said transfers create a “vicious circle”, adding: “It is children who are losing out. The government needs to properly fund the whole system.”

In a debate on SEND funding in the Commons this week, Robin Walker, the education select committee chair, warned “we have to acknowledge that producing ever more help to manage the level of deficits isn’t a sustainable solution and that investment is required to clear or remove them”.

The NAHT union has also called this week for the government to write off all council high needs deficits, which currently sit at £1.6 billion.

In total, 34 councils have signed “safety valve” deals where they have been given bailouts totalling £1 billion in exchange for strict conditions to cut costs. Another six councils are in talks to join the scheme.

A spokesperson for the County Councils Network said it was “clear that the present special educational needs and disabilities system is buckling under the strain of yearly increases in demand”.

The DfE spokesperson said: “It is common practice for local authorities to use funding flexibilities to transfer funding from their schools block to their high needs block. We assess each request against clear criteria, including their consultations with local schools and whether it will benefit local SEND services.

“Most requests in 2024-25 were from Safety Valve local authorities who have devised multi-year plans to transform their local systems for the benefit of children and young people. Local authorities use this funding flexibility to transfer small amounts of their school funding to deliver this transformation over multiple years.”

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