‘This has to be fixed’: Town Hall bosses raise alarm on SEND funding

Cllr Anntoinette Bramble addressing SEND campaigners on Friday 28 February.

Politicians and council officers are raising the alarm over funding levels for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), with one-off resources for this year proving inadequate.

Deputy Mayor Anntoinette Bramble (Lab, London Fields) joined Tower Hamlets protesters invoicing Downing Street for £12m at the end of last week, with Hackney’s additional £4m from the government for this year only about half the sum required to meet its own funding gap.

The government set aside an extra £700m for high needs across the country in 2020/21, but councils continue to struggle with straitened budgets.

Hackney finance chief Ian Williams says a number of local authorities are now in negative financial reserves as a result.

The council corporate resources mandarin has described the situation as “almost unheard of”, adding: “There has to be a fix to this.”

Cllr Bramble said: “We’ve been calling on the government to reform SEND funding for a number of years.

“It’s clear that things simply cannot continue the way they are, with councils having to use their reserves which is not sustainable or find savings elsewhere, and some are facing bankruptcy to fund such an important service.

“Marches like Friday’s show deep concern and the frustration families feel – they just don’t feel that the government is listening to them. It is absolutely vital that the government hears the voice of children, parents/ carers and councils and finally provide.”

A council report provided as part of last week’s budget claims that the “actual scale” of the impact of the increase in the number of young people supported by an education health and care plan (EHCP) was not foreseen when reforms to the SEND system were brought in seven years ago.

Costs for EHCPs are meant to be funded from a budget known as the High Needs Block, part of the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG), but the report adds that this source of funding has seen “minimal growth” despite an increase in demand.

Local schools are understood to be under increasing pressure to meet the growing need, with the Town Hall “increasingly reliant” on the independent sector while investing in new specialist provision locally, including proposals to expand provision at Queensbridge school, as well as the Garden and Ickburgh Schools

In a recent interview, Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville said: “There’s a full understanding from parents, campaigners’ groups, teachers, schools, treasurers, commissioners, mayors, that this has to be fixed. We can’t go on as we are.

“One of the things we did see coming out of the consultation on the previous SEND changes, and the consultation on some additional capital resource the government proposed to allocate us, is an investment on more in-borough provision.

“Parents said during that consultation that we want more in-borough provision and also that out-of-borough provision is more expensive and less integrated. Having people within their community and existing schools is really positive.

“Investing in our places will in the long-run help reduce pressures. I don’t think anything will close any of those big gaps, but fundamentally there will be a better service for the families involved, so we and the government are putting a bit of resource into that.

“The government is very good at one-offs of capital investment, but never very good at answering the questions of getting a sustainable position. We don’t have the power to make any of these big shifts.”

It remains unclear for Hackney Council what its funding position on the issue will look like beyond this year, with new regulations not permitting councils to fund any deficit in their DSG from core council funds without permission from the government.

Views inside the Town Hall on why this move has been taken by the government are understood to differ, with Williams interpreting the regulations as the government looking at how it can properly fund the system itself, and Glanville seeing the shift as “potentially not very helpful”.

A council report on the issue reads: “The implications of what the Department for Education (DfE) are doing is [that] they are suggesting that the DfE needs to be responsible for the funding of the deficits.

“So, on the one hand, councils can simply provide for a DSG deficit that sits on the balance sheet with an assumption that some, as yet unspecified, amount of extra funding will come along to make it good at some point in the future.

“This may well come to pass but on the other hand at this stage we have got absolutely no clarity so this could be viewed as a risky financial judgement.”

“There is highly likely to be many more twists and turns over coming months with joint Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy/DfE guidance expected shortly, with external auditors coming to a view and the release of the DfE SEN review.”