Special education overspend rises

A further £36 million expected to be added to the debt

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

Leading Devon councillors are urging the government to clarify funding for special education after the county’s overspend on the service was projected to rise to £85 million.

Councils have been told to put overspends for supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) into separate accounts for three years until April 2023. It means the shortfall doesn’t currently count towards Devon’s main revenue figures.

The county council entered this financial year with a total overspend of £49 million in its ring-fenced SEND account. It expects to add a further £36 million to the debt in 2021/22, according to the latest budget report.

But it is still not known what wiill happen to the debt when the arrangement ends. At a meeting of the council’s ruling cabinet this week, councillors from all sides expressed concern at the situation.

Opposition leader Councillor Alan Connett (Lib Dem, Exminster & Haldon) said it was “real money that the county council’s spent,” while leader of the Labour group Councillor Rob Hannaford (Exwick & St Thomas) called it a “huge concern” and demanded action.

“There still is a concern, despite all the work that’s going on within children’s services and the treasury, that at some point already overstretched budgets might see resources sucked in to fill that black hole if we’re not careful,” Cllr Hannaford said.

“That’s definitely not what we need. We want more money for schools, more money for children’s services and this debt paid off. I know it’s a big ask but that’s what we’ve got to ask for and I hope that’s actually what we’re going to get.”

In response, cabinet member for children’s services Councillor Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative, Weirside & Topsham) told them: “We have to address this money that’s been put to one side at some point, and that is very much at the top of my agenda.”

He recently spoke to officials from the Department for Education about the matter and invited the under secretary of state to visit.

“We’re going to lobby. I’m going to lobby Devon MPs for their support. I’m already lobbying the government that they have to help us out with that.

“They told us to put it to one side. I think it would be unfair if they then expected us to deal with the whole issue ourselves, so there’s an awful lot of work going on … top of the agenda is to work out how to deal with this deficit.”

Presenting the budget figures to the cabinet, Councillor Phil Twiss (Conservative, Feniton & Honiton) said this year’s projected overspend on SEND of £36 million had increased by almost £3 million from the last update in September, due mainly to increasing demand in new requests for education and health care plans (EHCPs).

The plans set out the needs of a child or young person for whom extra support is needed, beyond that which the school can provide. As a result of the extra demand, the budget report said it has “had a significant impact on the ability … to reduce the demand for EHCPs by supporting children within mainstream [schools].”

According to the report, education officers have developed a “shared management plan which seeks to ensure children with special educational needs receive the support they need, whilst also addressing the [overspend].”

But it warned: “Through this process and [the Department of Education’s] feedback, we have all recognised that the original financial assumptions underlying the savings identified were ambitious. These assumptions are therefore being reviewed.”

The updated projections come after the county council’s deputy leader wrote to the government last month to ask for more money for Devon’s schools and  SEND services.

In his letter, Councillor James McInnes (Conservative, Hatherleigh & Chagford) said about the SEND issue: “This continues to be a major concern. The number of children with special educational needs, and their complexity of need, continues to grow, with demand far outstripping budgets.

“While we appreciate the increase in SEND funding during the last two or three years, significant additional funding is required for both mainstream and special schools. We urge the government to publish the long-overdue SEND review and to overhaul the SEND system to ensure it is fit for purpose.”

Reacting to the letter, Cllr Connett said the SEND funding is a “national scandal” adding “In effect, this is the county council’s credit card being bent backwards to maintain really important services for the most vulnerable children with special needs.”