The growing challenge of high needs funding faced by local authorities was in the news again this week – this time in relation to Dorset County Council who are facing a £13 million shortfall in their high needs budget for the coming financial year. A Freedom Of Information request by the BBC showed a total overspend (across the 136 councils who responded) of £324million in their high needs budgets.
Even with the government’s promised injection of £250 million for high needs funding over the next two years, there will still be a shortfall. With demand levels as they currently are, there clearly isn’t sufficient money in the system to cope.
Since the 2014 Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) reforms, the challenges in high needs funding have become particularly stark. Those reforms were designed to reduce the number of children requiring statutory assessment due to their special education needs, whilst increasing the number of children with SEND who were educated in mainstream schools. In fact, the data shows that the opposite has happened, and that this has already led to the need for approximately £1 billion of additional high needs funding across the country over the same time period – and yet this is clearly still not enough. Given such significant changes in demand over such a short period, money can’t be the only issue.
Whilst much of the focus on these pressures has been on the increasing demand in relation to SEND, this is only one part of the picture in relation to pressures in high needs funding. All local authorities are allocated such funding through their dedicated school grant, with this being distributed across a number of ‘blocks’, one being the high needs block. Whilst the majority of this budget tends to be focused on SEND, this budget is also used to cover other areas of educational need. When taken as a whole, all of these areas are showing increased demand pressure, with rising exclusions (permanent and fixed) and rising numbers of children in alternative provision mirroring the rises in SEND numbers – adding to the overall overspend pressure on this block.
These increases in demand and spend are, I believe, at least in part the result of the fragmentation of the education system. The removal of the education support grant stripped back key early support for children with additional needs, and recent education reforms have removed a single local accountability structure for education. I recently spent a year working as the Deputy Director for Education for a local authority. On my last day, the Regional Schools Commissioner told me that his office would no longer be intervening in schools unless they received an inadequate Ofsted Inspection. So now that a local authority no longer has this power, capacity or responsibility, where is the challenge to broader educational outcomes across a local system?
If we look at other data related to high needs as well as the rises in SEND, it provides further evidence for the need for such a role:
- An estimated 57% increase in the number of children educated at home since 2014, with concerns about off-rolling raised by Ofsted in their draft education inspection framework
- A 60% increase in the number of permanent exclusions between 2012/13 and 2016/17
- A 71% increase in fixed period exclusions in the same period
- A 14% increase in the number of children educated in alternative provision and pupil referral units over the last 4 years
These statistics demonstrate that there are broader challenges across the education landscape than simply those around increased demand in SEND – challenges that are putting additional pressure on funding, whilst at the same time leading to increasing numbers of children sitting outside of mainstream education.
Policymaking has not kept up with the impact that the fragmentation of educational responsibility has created. A good example of this is the oversight of overall education funding (including high needs funding) in local authority areas through schools forums. Before academisation, all school budgets and education spend was presented and discussed by representatives from local authorities and schools at these forums, to determine the best way to allocate precious resources and discuss local challenges. It is perverse that maintained school budgets still have to be shared in this way, for all schools – including academies – to see and comment on, whilst academies have no such duty to share details of their budgets or be accountable to other local schools or the local authorities they sit under.
Funding isn’t keeping up with demand, but neither is national policy. The DfE needs to do more to understand and address issues that are, at least in part, created by an education system that is now more fragmented than ever.