Cuts loom in schools as special educational needs and disabled demand increases
An increasing deficit for Cambridgeshire’s special needs education funding threatens cuts to schools across the county, councillors and school leaders have been told.
The government is set to announce the final budget allocation in December, but illustrative figures show Cambridgeshire’s schools funding is set to increase next year, both for its general schools funding and for its special educational needs and disabled (SEND) provision.
Despite this, a general pay increase for teachers, the increase in demand for SEND provision and a near £30 million deficit on the SEND budget look set to absorb more than the increase in funds provided, the county council has said.
The county’s director for education, Jonathan Lewis, told a county council committee last week that “real-terms school funding is not increasing at the rate you may see it necessarily advertised”.
Later in the same meeting – the children and young people’s committee held on November 10 – Mr Lewis said, based on the illustrative allocation and the growing demands in SEND provision, in “headline figures” that there will be a “real-terms cut” to the county’s general schools budget next year.
The county council has said it is considering a 10 per cent cut in what is called “top-up funding” to schools – additional money allocated to schools to help with the additional cost of their SEND provision – which could save £1.3 million.
The cut could potentially be one of the “difficult decisions” needed to be taken in the next six months to reduce the county’s SEND spend, Mr Lewis said.
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Mr Lewis also said the county’s schools need to start to repay a near £30 million deficit that has accumulated over the past few years on the SEND budget – costing £0.5 million to the county council to finance per year.
But he said it is unlikely that much if any, will be paid off next year, and that the reductions in spending being considered may only prevent adding to the deficit.
Cambridgeshire County Council will be deciding its education budget early next year ahead of the start of the 2021/22 financial year.
Talk of cuts comes despite an expected increase in funding for both its schools block budget. This is the funding provided for general schools, and an increase in funding for its high needs block, which is the budget that supports SEND provision and special schools.
Ultimately, the county council has said the increase in schools funding is expected to be taken up by two things – an increase in teachers’ pay and pension contributions, and a transfer of funds from the general budget to the SEND budget.
The county council said of general schools block budget: “Although we will see a 3.4 per cent funding increase for 2021/22, the teacher pay award of 2.75 per cent and a one per cent for the school transfer means there will be a net reduction of 0.35 per cent at a county level. This will vary school by school.”
Whether or not a transfer of funds from the main schools budget to SEND provision will go ahead is yet to be determined. The council has indicated it may seek to move one per cent of its general schools funding to its SEND provision, but such a move would require the approval of the secretary of state, Gavin Williamson.
Without transferring money in from other budgets, Cambridgeshire’s SEND budget is expected to rise eight per cent next year, to £82.5 million, but even that has been described by the council as “insufficient to meet current commitments”.
One key funding pressure is an increasing number of pupils qualifying for extra special needs provision. The number of education, health and care plans (EHCPs) – a plan implementing more than is available through a pupil’s school’s existing special needs provision – has more than doubled in the county in the past three years, from 2,472 in April 2017 to 5,119 in July this year.
Compared with schools in the rest of England, Cambridgeshire’s schools are “not well funded,” Mr Lewis told the children and young people committee.
He said that out of 149 council areas, Cambridgeshire’s spend per pupil ranked at number 141 in 2020/21, with baseline schools block funding per pupil at £4,732. Peterborough was ranked 63, with £7,136 per pupil, the council said. Based on illustrative figures for next year, the council says Cambridgeshire is set to drop to 143 out of 149, despite an increase to £4,900 per pupil.
On the question of transferring money from the general schools budget to the SEND budget, councillor Simon Bywater told the children and young people committee “this is almost like deja vu,” saying the committee had “the same conversation last year”.
Cllr Bywater, chair of the committee, said: “It seems to me that the argument is quite clear really, it’s just there is not enough funding to go around”.
Councillor Lucy Nethsingha said: “It is deeply frustrating that we are still here, and we’ve been here before, and the deficit just carries on getting bigger and the government doesn’t seem to have a sensible solution for it”.
Mr Lewis said that in the context of the SEND budget deficit and increasing demand: “I don’t see we have any choice but to continue to make further savings on the high needs block”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Schools in Cambridgeshire will attract a cash increase of 4.5 per cent next year under the schools national funding formula, an additional £17.3 million compared to this year, based on current pupil numbers.
That is equal to 3.5 per cent more funding per pupil, which is above the national average for schools.
“Cambridgeshire’s provisional high needs funding allocation for 2021-22 will be £82.5 million, an 8.0 per cent per head increase on the amount of high needs funding allocated in 2020-21.”
A spokesperson for the county council said: “We have calculated the 3.4 per cent funding increase based on the schools block cash received by the council for 2020/21 compared to the illustrative 2021/22 schools block figures published by the DfE in July.
“Final figures however are subject to change and will be published by the DfE in December.”