The new National Funding Formula has been a topic of significant discussion in recent months for Headteachers, business managers and governors and will be the defining issue facing schools in the next five years as its impact will affect every aspect of schools’ operations. Unsurprisingly I have serious concerns about funding for SEND, in more broad terms, both in mainstream schools and in the special school sector.
Local authorities have been living beyond their means in terms of SEND budgets for some time, propping up their High Needs Blocks (see below; effectively the SEND budget for LAs) with money from elsewhere, but those days seem numbered.
There is a perfect storm brewing for SEND funding in the upcoming few years due to a quadruple whammy of central government policy and financial decisions and the changing demography of children requiring specialist provision.
1 Local authority budgets are divided up into three blocks: Early Years, Schools and High Needs. Every local authority that I know of moves money between the three strands of its total education budget. One example is the movement of a surplus from the Early Years budget due to a lower than expected uptake of nursery places to the High Needs Block to address an in-year overspend or structural deficit. The consultation on the schools national funding formula proposes to remove the ability of LAs to do this. LAs currently find it close to impossible to live within their means with regard to the High Needs Block. They can only cope with this restriction by removing, in my view, any LA services that are non-statutory such as, for example, behaviour or learning and language support services. This may be a desirable outcome for the government, of course, as they may want LAs to offer traded services or MATs and/or private providers to fill the gap, but on its own it will not solve the problem. I’ve written about the potential implications of the removal of these services here – https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/white-paper-how-send-achilles-heel-mass-academisation.
2 Recent SEND legislation resulting in the move from statements of special educational need to education, health and care plans (EHCPs), with an accompanying increase in the upper age limit from 19 to 25 has created significant financial pressures for LAs without the commensurate funding to help manage it.
3 DfE’s latest pupil projection figures predict a rise (the biggest increase of any sector by far) in the number of children requiring a place in a special school – an eye-watering 21 per cent jump from 2015 to 2025 (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/national-pupil-projections-july-2016). Unbelievably, there has been no communication that there is any central follow up planning for extra places in existing schools, or to build new schools to cope with unprecedented demand. Where will these 18,000 children go? That’s right. 18,000. Leaving it to individual MATs (the vast majority are exclusively mainstream, remember) or interest groups to open a free school here or there in a piecemeal manner will not address the structural shortage of places. Special schools are largely full or oversubscribed, so smart private providers who run existing independent special schools are likely to be building capacity as we speak to offer LAs solutions to this timebomb. As you would expect, this will do nothing to ease cost pressures on the High Needs Block. Quite the opposite, in fact. It won’t stretch them. It will break them.
4 The cessation of the Education Services Grant (ESG) in April 2017. LAs use ESG (sometimes called the top-slice) for many central services such as school improvement so it is not paid directly to maintained schools, but academies receive this money directly. ESG is currently funded to LAs and academies at rates of £77 per pupil in primaries and secondaries; £327 per pupil in special schools and £289 per pupil in PRUs. Worse, LAs will be allowed to impose a levy on maintained schools to fund those activities previously funded through ESG. This will amount to a budget cut for schools. For our school this will result in a net budget cut of approximately £70,000 on this point alone.
I worry about many things as part of my job. But nothing comes close to the scale of this problem. This is not an issue confined to special schools. The vast majority of children with SEND are in mainstream schools (and half of all children with EHCPs) and the extra 18,000 mentioned above will have to go somewhere. Do you have space? I don’t.
This is an issue of real urgency and needs clear direction and serious funding from central government to avoid another decade of dissatisfaction from parents and schools alike as we watch the system implode under the pressure.