‘Enough is enough’: Special schools’ devastating budgets revealed 

Nearly nine in ten special schools are forecasting a budget deficit over the next two years

Nearly nine in ten special schools are forecasting a budget deficit over the next two years


Special schools are staring into budget holes as deep as £1.5 million, a Schools Week investigation has found, as heads say “enough is enough” and launch a national campaign against more cuts.

Nearly nine in ten special schools are forecasting a budget deficit over the next two years as unfunded pay rises, soaring energy costs and inflation take their toll.

A poll of 100 schools by the National Network of Specialist Provision (NNSP) has found that the average deficit across 80 schools in the red is forecast as £144,176 next year, rising to £225,926 across nearly 90 schools in 2024-25.

‘It’s not financial incompetency, it’s underfunding’

But after years of slashing provision “to the bone”, heads are now refusing to make more cuts – warning they would breach their legal duty to provide care for the country’s most vulnerable children.

While the government has claimed its recent teacher pay offer was fully funded, it has emerged that special schools were excluded from its calculations.

Special school heads are today launching a national campaign calling for urgent action from MPs, saying the “operational safety” of their schools is at “immediate risk”.

Alistair Crawford and Alison Ashley, NNSP co-chairs, said the sector was “facing a financial crisis that will not only lessen and limit the life chances of the most vulnerable learners in society but also threaten the viability of many specialist schools in the next 18 months.

“What has to happen – from a critical incident point of view or serious mistake – for something to change? Enough is enough.”

‘Pupil safety is at risk – this is unchartered territory’

Special schools had to fund 5 per cent pay rises for teachers and up to 10 per cent pay rises for support staff. Their low pupil-to-teacher ratios and large numbers of support staff meant they were hit hard.

While the schools got an extra £325 million to cover increased costs last year, Schools Week investigations revealed that some cash-strapped councils kept millions of pounds, rather than pass it on. 

The £400 million extra funding for 2023-24 has been ring-fenced for special schools. But leaders say this is plugging budget holes and other additional costs caused by rising inflation.

The NNSP poll reached 10 per cent of the country’s 1,000 special schools, which educate about 140,000 youngsters. While the survey was self-selecting, special school leaders said they were surprised and horrified to see the devastating scale of financial ruin facing the sector.

The cumulative deficit of schools in the red will total £14 million next year and £22 million in 2024-25.

Just over half of respondents said “unfunded pay rises and staffing” were the most significant driver of deficits.

The government teacher pay body has recommended pay rises of 6.5 per cent next year, while support staff unions have rejected a rise of up to 9.4 per cent this year.

In March, Perseid School, a maintained special school for children with severe and profound learning difficulties in Merton, south London, has a deficit just under £500,000. Its projected funding shortfall will be £1.5 million by next March.

Tina Harvey, its headteacher, said it had no reserves but vowed that it would not cut services because of its legal duty to keep schools safe and provide a level of education specified by a pupil’s education, health and care plan.

‘Wrong to think head should solve this problem’

 “Sometimes, people think cutting staff is the obvious answer, but we have a high staff to pupil ratio because that is what the pupils need,” she said. “It’s wrong to think heads should be able to solve a problem of this magnitude when it is not of our making.”

The Eden Academy Trust is predicting deficit budgets of between £190,000 to £250,000 across its seven schools, compared with £60,000 for each school this year.

Susan Douglas, its chief executive, said reserves – money saved for fixing buildings or big-ticket expenditure – plugged shortfalls in the past, but are now “all used up”.

Susan Douglas
Susan Douglas

The trust has not replaced departing staff and has hit the limit on class sizes. Any more cuts would “risk health and safety, or possibly even medical issues for pupils and staff” Douglas said.

Figures are not published for class sizes in special schools because they are dictated more by pupil need. But the average number of pupils in special schools has risen every year from 108 in 2015-16, to 139 last year.

“I’ve heard people talking about 4.5 day weeks,” Douglas said. “That’s not a route we want to go down but we are worried – this is unchartered territory. This isn’t a financial competency issue, we are simply underfunded and our children and young people deserve better.”

She said top-up funding in Hillingdon, north London – where three of their schools are based – hasn’t increased since 2015. The council said it was reviewing funding levels.

The Learn to Live Foundation, with two special schools in Devon, said lower staffing levels often forced it to cancel outdoor education.

Nikki Burroughs, its executive head, said it cut five staff to help set a balanced budget this year. Last year it didn’t fill staff vacancies or cover maternity leave.

Pressure from councils and MATs to cut costs

Maintained schools must get permission from their council to set a budget deficit. While individual academies in trusts can be in deficit, a trust in the red would face government intervention.

Heads told the NNSP how some councils and MATs are putting “significant pressure on specialist school leaders to make difficult and sometimes dangerous decisions to ‘balance the books’.”

Simon Knight
Simon Knight

Simon Knight, the joint head of Frank Wise School in Oxfordshire, is still in talks with his council over a £52,000 forecast deficit, but said he “will not be making cuts”.

“This situation is not a result of poor financial control or extravagance, but a consequence of insufficient income resulting from the decisions made at a local and national government level.

“If we cut staffing, we will not be able to fulfil our legal responsibilities.”

Some heads have been encouraged to set budgets based on unrealistic 2 per cent pay rises, NNSP said. While others opened up about “heartbreaking conversations in which they have to ‘manage expectations’ of families as key aspects of the curriculum have become simply unaffordable”.

Forty-eight heads said they had “considered their position because of the current landscape”.

Harvey is retiring in July, unrelated to the current climate, but said “it makes you question how long you can sustain this level of pressure from external partners to try to rectify something that actually isn’t of our making.”

A Schools Week investigation last year found special schools and alternative provision had nearly three times more teaching posts filled by temporary workers.

Survival of SEND infrastructure is at risk

The government has claimed its proposed 4.5 per cent pay rise for teachers next year is fully funded.

While that stands up on a national scale, it ignores that many individual schools will still face cuts.

However, the government’s technical note – the evidence to back up its “fully funded” claim – “excluded” special schools.

While the government plans to publish more information “in future” on high-needs funding, it only looks at what goes to mainstream schools.

Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said its analysis “strongly indicates real-terms cuts in funding for vulnerable pupils and those with SEND.

“Any trust with a special school or alternative provision setting will not recognise the assessment of headroom informed by the technical note.”

Measuring cost pressures ‘challenging’

Luke Sibieta, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), said measuring the exact cost pressures of special schools was “challenging” because funding was decided by the needs of pupils and varied across councils.

A DfE spokesperson said the proposed additional £620 million funding for the now-rejected 4.5 per cent teacher pay rise would have “benefited” both mainstream and special schools.

Margaret Mulholland
Margaret Mulholland

But he said staffing costs “will be rising faster” than mainstream schools and that the schools “have faced significant budgetary challenges for a while due to the growing pressures on the high-needs budget”.

The high needs budget will be £10.1 billion by 2023-24, fifty per cent more than four years ago.

They highlighted the long-awaited SEND reforms that would set national standards, including for funding bands and tariffs. But there will be no nationwide roll-out until a two-year trial ends.

Margaret Mulholland, a SEND specialist at the school leaders’ union ASCL, said if there was no additional funding the future survival of SEND infrastructure was at risk. “This is not a sustainable direction of travel.”

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