Consultation on cuts to high needs learning in Cambridgeshire delayed
Ben Hatton, Local Democracy Reporter
- Credit: Archant
A consultation on a proposed cut to provision for high needs learning in Cambridgeshire schools will be delayed until at least next year.
In the meantime Cambridgeshire County Council is continuing to appeal to the government to provide more funds.
The council says that despite an increase in funding for high needs education for the upcoming financial year, funding is being outstripped by demand, “due to the continuing increase in the number of high needs learners and complexity of need”.
By the end of this financial year, 2020/21, the council expects to have a £27m cumulative deficit on the high needs block of its education budget, which could rise to £38m a year later without mitigation.
The “opportunity cost” to the council of carrying the deficit has been described as between £500,000 and £700,000 a year.
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The council had suggested it would consult this year on cutting “top-up” funding, a kind of per pupil funding for those that need additional support to learn in mainstream schools, by 10 per cent.
The council says that action can now be delayed until next year because of a transfer of 0.16 per cent of the dedicated schools grant from the general schools budget to the high needs budget, which will provide £634,000, enough to “delay” the proposed consultation on cuts to in-school top-up funding for additional support.
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Cambridgeshire’s education director, Jonathan Lewis, told the county council’s children and young people committee on Tuesday (January 19) that a 10 per cent cut would bring Cambridgeshire in line with local authorities which are “statistical neighbours”.
“Ask any headteacher whether we fund enough [through top-up funding] and they will every time tell us it’s nowhere near what the costs are, which we don’t disagree with,” Mr Lewis said, but when making the same point to the schools forum last Friday, he said “we can’t keep spending what we haven’t got”.
Mr Lewis says the high needs education budget includes provision for special educational needs and disability learning (SEND), as well as provision for children with other high support needs and “our most vulnerable children”.
Mr Lewis said that a £634,000 reduction to the general schools budget equates to around £5 less for all 110,000 students in the county, whereas it would make the difference between making the cut to high needs pupil support now or potentially making it later.
“We want to delay that cut, because we will be cutting support at the time when it’s the most challenging,” he said, referring to the pandemic and the impact on schools.
“This is a temporary arrangement only, it will buy us some time for a year to continue the debate,” he said, adding “we would have had to have consulted in the spring term, we probably would have looked to implement those changes probably in September, maybe in late summer, so the £634,000 buys us some time to have those conversations with government – look at other options – until probably January 2022.”
The council had originally asked the government to allow a one per cent transfer from the general schools budget to the high needs budget, which would have meant a further £3.9m for the high needs block, at a cost of around £35 less spending on every pupil in the county. But the government blocked that proposal, and Mr Lewis said no rationale for that decision has been provided.
Liberal Democrat Peter Downes, the council’s representative on the F40 group – a group of councils which says its members “are among the worst funded in the country in terms of per pupil funding” – said research from 2020 indicated Cambridgeshire’s high needs deficit is the seventh highest in the country as a proportion of its budget.
Councillor Downes told the Local Democracy Reporting Service he supported the one per cent transfer proposal.
“In my view it’s worrying if children who have special needs don’t get help early,” he said, describing how in some cases a lack of adequate provision can actually increase costs further down the line. “Early intervention makes sense in financial terms as well as human terms,” he said.
The headteacher of Ely St John’s Community Primary School, Elizabeth Bassett, told the schools forum on Friday (January 15) said “it has been mooted across the county that there are no special school places available presently for primary children until September 2022”.
She said “schools are having – and when I say hold I don’t mean it in a nasty way – but they are having to manage a number of children in school who we have already accepted their needs cannot be met in a mainstream setting. Talking about lowering the top-up funding is slightly concerning to hear in the light of that”.
A Cambridgeshire County Council spokesperson said: “Unfortunately, the [one per cent] transfer request was declined.
“Without the agreed transfer this deficit is only likely to increase further as funding fails to keep pace with need.
“The council has and continues to explore cost-saving measures but reducing funding to some of the most vulnerable young people in the county at the current time is not desirable.
“In recognition of this at their meeting of January 15, the schools forum did approve a transfer of just over £600,000 from the schools block to the high needs block to allow the delay of a proposed consultation on reducing top-up funding to pupils in mainstream schools that need additional support.”