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(UK) NBL: $7.8M "high needs" deficit; pressure to CUT SPED NUMBERS

Jan 11, 2024, Hexham Courant: Labour concerns on SEND education in Northumberland 

NE England

CONCERNS have been raised about an ongoing consultation into the future of SEND education in Northumberland – which council officers admitted contained a series of “unpalatable” options.
The number of children requiring an education and healthcare plan (EHCP) in the county more than doubled from 1,679 in 2017 to 3,369 in 2023.
The increase brings with it rising costs, and Northumberland County Council is facing a budget deficit of £6.2 million [$7.9M] in its high needs block by the end of the 2024/25 financial year.

The High Needs Block funds special school places and ‘top ups’, which provide extra resources for learners with EHCPs in addition to the ordinarily available provision for all children.  

The problem is not unique to Northumberland, but in other areas where the Government has stepped in to provide additional funds and bridge the gap, councils are expected to reduce their SEND spending.

At a meeting of the council’s schools forum last month, director of education David Street explained that some measures ordered by the DfE can be “unpalatable” to those in the education sector.

These include reducing the growth and cutting EHCPs, specialist demand, and top-up values.

Councillor Angie Scott, Labour’s shadow cabinet member for education on the county council, said schools were already struggling.

The Prudhoe North councillor, who has a son with a diagnosis of autism, said: “My concern is if they cut the amount of EHCPs, how on earth are children and young people going to get the correct support? It is outrageous that the council are even considering this they should be fighting for our children by challenging central Government for more funding….
“Schools are trying hard and doing innovative things like changing cupboards into quiet rooms. This shows the commitment of headteachers, but they are at breaking point.
“Children are being excluded from school because of their social and emotional issues which could be resolved with adequate care plans. Northumberland County Council say they have a plan, but it is only words.

“There is a crisis and children and parents are bearing the brunt. The education system is in chaos and the future of our children is bleak.”

The council’s ruling cabinet is set to be asked to approve a transfer of up to 0.5 per cent funding from the mainstream schools block into the high-needs block next week.

The county’s schools were consulted on the plans, with a number of questions asked including whether it supports transferring 0.5 per cent of the mainstream school funding to the high-needs block and whether larger transfers would be supported in the future. This would work out at around £1.15 million [$9.1M].

Of the 28 schools consulted, there was “overwhelming support” for the transfer with the majority supportive of increasing the transfer further. A wider consultation is set to look at developing “new principles and guidance” to “reduce the predicted overspend”.

Responding to Cllr Scott’s comments, Cllr Guy Renner-Thompson, the Conservative administration’s cabinet member for children’s services, said: “Supporting learners with special educational needs is a key priority for the council. The vast majority of this support is delivered by our excellent and highly inclusive school system, but some children with a SEND need may need further support outlined in an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). 

“In line with the national picture, the number of children and young people in Northumberland assessed as requiring an EHCP is increasing, which places increased cost pressures on the SEND system. …

 “In fact, the rise in figures means that more of our young people are having their needs recognised and met than ever before.  We have some of the best schools in the country – with 95.1 per cent rated good or outstanding. 

“We’re investing over £100m [$128M] in new school facilities across the county and provision for pupils with SEND are at the heart of all those plans. We’re also investing in more support to make sure children and families can get the right help at the right time through our early help teams, family hubs and excellent early years provision. 

“Following an initial consultation with schools, a wider consultation with schools will now take place on how we can all work together to address the financial challenges of meeting the changing needs of our pupil population.”


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