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(UK) Kent: $129M SPED deficit; system described as 'bottomless pit'

April 28, 2022, Kent Online: Kent County Council funding for Special Educational Needs pupils has reached £103m [$129M] deficit, the worst in country

SE England

The director for education at Kent County Council (KCC) has described the county's special educational needs (SEN) system as a “bottomless pit". Data collected by The Bureau for Investigative Journalism has found that KCC's deficit for such provisions has reached £103m – in cash terms, the largest in the country - and it will take five years for the authority to break even again. The huge shortfall has been attributed to expensive transport taking children miles away from home and an alleged broken tribunal system for failed Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) applications. The investigation has found the main problem is the fact that funding has failed to keep up with demand for EHCPs and SEN school places - currently 260,824 pupils have special educational needs in Kent. This has created a fast-growing financial black hole at the heart of the system and the shortfall in England hit £1.3bn in March – an increase of more than £450m in the past year alone, but Kent's financial position has been found to be the worst in the country. Currently in Kent 1,199 pupils have been placed in schools in a different local authority by Kent County Council - although 598 of those are placed under Medway Council.... KCC's special educational needs and disabilities director, Mark Walker, says parents have lost faith in the ability of Kent’s mainstream schools to meet their children’s needs. The council therefore receives a high proportion of EHCP applications from parents who "want places at expensive independent schools". Mr Walker blames the tribunal system, which hears appeals against local authority decisions, for helping parents get their way. But with the government piling on the pressure to bring spending down, councils are being forced to plan even more cost-cutting measures. Currently, KCC turn down more than 25% of requests for EHCPs but the independent tribunals will rule in favour of the parents 96% of the time.... Mr Walker believes the answer to reducing the deficit is to increase inclusion at mainstream schools but even still, the damage would take years to reverse. “We need to make sure parents in Kent don’t think they have to get an EHCP in order to get the type of support their son or daughter needs,” he said. And Mike Walters, the chairman of the Kent Association of Headteachers, thinks the whole system is broken. Mr Walters said: “We are working within what is largely a broken system. And I don't just mean in Kent, I mean, nationally. "But the real tragedy of it is there are too many cases where either parents or the child or both feel like no one wants them - none of us want that." He continued: “I believe the vast majority of children have a good experience, but there are a substantial minority who don’t. "We collectively as school leaders, recognize that we bear some of the responsibility for that, and also for trying to make it better in the future." One worried mum is currently preparing to take her fight to court after being told no school place could be found for her son who has autism, as his nearby comprehensive school can't cope with his additional needs. Eleven-year-old Sam Horsley, from Hartley, is due to finish school at Langafel Primary School in Longfield, in September, and needs a specialist school to help him with learning difficulties. But mum Rebecca Horsley, 39, who also works as a teacher, says that although KCC have agreed Sam needs a specialist school, they have offered him nothing and are wasting thousands of pounds by driving her to challenge them at a tribunal hearing.... Councils with deficits have to submit plans to the Department for Education on how they intend to balance their books. Some authorities will include proposals to amend thresholds for which children are eligible for the education, health and care needs assessment which is the first step towards securing an EHCP. Further changes could include digitising EHCPs to make the process more straightforward and a drive to promote inclusivity in mainstream schools. Karen Stone, finance business partner for the children and young people's department at KCC said the increases in grants have been insufficient to cover the increase in spending. She also said the council's overspend was the result of the amount of money they’re having to spend on independent and specialist placements. Ms Stone added: "Before the council can even think about addressing its deficit, it will take at least five years for its annual spending to reach a break-even position." "It's a bottomless pit - where do you draw the line..?"... The total amount agreed and signed off is due to be announced in September. So although the government is putting help in place to support councils and relieve the pressure, these reforms could take time to introduce. Meanwhile, thousands of special needs and disabled children will continue to struggle to access a suitable education.

The SEN system in Kent has been described as a "bottomless pit"


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