Dire warnings for Cambridgeshire schools as overspending on high needs education skyrockets

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Cambridgeshire’s overspending on high needs education has increased more than fivefold in three years according to the county council.

The situation means some of Cambridgeshire’s schools face making cuts and potentially even redundancies as the county council looks to transfer funds between budgets to meet the shortfall.

Jonathan Lewis, service director for education in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire

Jonathan Lewis, service director for education in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire

The high needs budget supports children with special education needs and disabilities.

Funding for schools is set to increase nationally, including in Cambridgeshire, but a council report on the high needs education budget says funding is not keeping pace with the rising pressures.

The county council is expecting Cambridgeshire’s 2020/21 high needs funding from central government to increase by around 8.4 per cent compared to this year, and yet a council report to the schools forum last Friday (November 8) says it “simply isn’t enough” and is not matching the growth in demand or “higher expectations”.

The council said the anticipated increase in funding is around £2 million less than it was expecting “and will result in the need to make further significant savings on these budget areas”.

The council is proposing moving £6.5 million or 1.8 per cent of the “schools block” grant – the money that makes up individual school budgets – to a separate budget for high needs education.

The council issued a consultation on the proposals to Cambridgeshire’s schools on Monday and is seeking an endorsement from the school’s forum, but the decision will ultimately be taken by councillors on the county’s children and young people committee.

At the most recent meeting of the schools forum on November 8, Dr Kim Taylor, headteacher at Spring Common Academy, said: “The high needs block needs to be the main focus.

“We do know if we don’t invest in our children at a younger age then it’s going to cost you even more as adult services and the life-long cost and the life-long impact on that person is considerable.

At the end of the day we have in the UK a culture that children are all entitled to an education and we are getting to a point where we haven’t got the money to deliver it, and I think that’s why we need to be very open with our colleagues about that.”

She said the county’s special schools are “very cost-effective” and “give very good outcomes”.

Despite a broad recognition across the schools forum for the need to address the high needs funding shortage, teachers warned of the impacts elsewhere in the system.

Headteacher of St Matthew’s Primary School, Tony Davies, said a transfer of 1.8 per cent could see some schools facing redundancies.

He said: “The real thing is, however we decide in the end to move forward, there are going to be cuts. Because really it is all one budget. It’s really saying ‘there is going to be a deficit, whose budget is it going to sit in?’

“If the money is not transferred then some of the services that the schools get from the high needs fund will be cut, and we’ll have to find another way of paying for them – so the money will come out of the schools budget anyway.

“The upshot is there isn’t enough money there, so I don’t see how we come out of this without services to our most vulnerable children being cut to some extent.”

Mr Davies added that although some schools will be receiving more funding overall, the shortfall in the high needs block risks “wiping out those gains”.

The Principle of Ely College, Richard Spencer, told the forum: “We would be irresponsible to be recommending cuts of this scale in our secondary sector.

He added: “There is no capacity within the secondary sector to deliver these kinds of savings without risking safeguarding issues emerging”.

“If we are asked to recommend a transfer like this I think we potentially will be recommending an irresponsible measure be taken. The cuts are going to have to be managed either way, we accept that, but it’s whether or not the school’s forum recommend them.”

Speaking after the meeting he added it “risks eating into or wiping out any gains we would have made from increased national funding”.

Lucie Calow, headteacher of the Granta Special School, said there was a “collective moral and financial imperative, and why it needs to be very open and obvious the contribution that all schools are making towards the deficit in the high needs block – because that’s where the crisis really is”.

If the council does go ahead, that transfer of funds will only help meet existing and forecast cost pressures and will still leave a £16.2 million cumulative deficit on the dedicated schools grant which the consultation says will need to be repaid with further savings.

According to the council, as of April this year, Cambridgeshire has the fourth-highest Designated School Grant deficit in the country, and it forecasts it will rise to third in March 2020.

The council report says “there is no funding to meet the increasing number and complexity of high needs pupils. To the contrary significant savings need to be delivered.”

The high needs budget has moved from an overspend of £1.3 million in 2015/16 to £8.8 million just three years later.

The county overspent on its total dedicated schools grant last year and had to submit deficit recovery plans to the Department for Education.

The high needs budget includes money for care plans in schools and colleges, special schools, out of county special educational needs placements, out of school tuition, transport and education in hospitals.

The council says 14 per cent of the high needs budget is spent on out of county provision.

The council’s service director for education, Jonathan Lewis, told the schools forum the county has to rely on out of county placements because “the challenge we have got here is some of these children, we cannot meet their needs”.

Questioned at the school’s forum as to why changes cannot be made to bring more provision back into the county, he said: “Even if we wanted to meet those needs in the county, where’s the capital coming from to build something?

“We haven’t got any places in our special schools. Where is the revenue coming from to set these things up, to make them happen? Unfortunately, what we’re in is a bit of a cycle here, where invest-to-save is virtually impossible. I wanted to ringfence the extra money we got last year, and it’s just been wiped out.”

A consultation for the affected schools is set to run until December.

Ben Hatton, Local Democracy Reporting Service