Almost 90% of English councils overspent on their budgets for teaching children with special needs last year, and the underfunding is set to continue into 2021, according to figures seen by the Observer.
Campaigners say the special education needs and disabilities (Send) system is in turmoil owing to chronic underfunding from central government, with many children left without adequate support.
Of England’s 151 upper-tier councils (which excludes district councils) 132 overspent their high needs block (HNB) – the grant that funds Send education – in 2019/20. Only nine councils did not record an overspend, and no data was available for the other 10.
The total HNB shortfall in England was £643m, which councils partly mitigated by raiding £112m from other funding pots, including other parts of their education budgets.
The 2014 Children and Families Act increased the range of ages of children and young people with Send that councils had to support – but didn’t provide the necessary money. As a result, councils have been spending money they don’t have, with at least 91 of them exhausting their dedicated schools grant – the core funding for all schools and nurseries.
The figures were collated from published council documents for the website Special Needs Jungle, and have been shared with the Observer.
Gillian Doherty of campaign group Send Action told the Observer: “It’s really concerning that the majority of local authorities are still in deficit. The ‘additional funding’ for Send has not been sufficient to address existing deficits and funding shortfalls and has therefore made little impact on frontline services for disabled children and young people.
“We are still seeing cuts to specialist teaching services and top-up funding for mainstream schools in some areas, and many schools are seeing real-terms cuts in per pupil funding.”
Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “Funding hasn’t kept pace with the increase in demand, resulting in many councils running significant deficits on their high needs blocks. We are concerned councils will not be able to meet their statutory duties to support children with Send unless additional money is made available.”
A department for education spokesperson said: “We’ve announced the biggest increase in school funding in a decade and are increasing high needs funding for local authorities by £780m this year and £730m next year, boosting the total budget by nearly a quarter in 2021-22.”
But this new money could be insufficient after years of funding squeezes, with just 17 councils breaking even or underspending. Among all councils, there is a net forecast overspend of £362m. Some councils face seemingly insurmountable deficits: Kent’s is £30m in Kent and Surrey’s £24m.
Critically, new rules mean that from this year, councils will no longer be able to clear education overspends from other parts of their budget without special permission, from the government, so councils will have to find savings from their already-overstretched education budgets.
Last month Surrey started consulting on plans to stop giving additional Send funding to mainstream schools. Critics fear this would discourage schools from taking Send pupils – driving them into more expensive specialist independent schools.
Surrey council cabinet member Julie Iles said: “We are proposing changes that provide the right level of support, and help young people to gain independence where possible and transition to adulthood successfully. And to do so in a way that is sustainable, giving schools the ability to use funding and resources collectively and more flexibly.”
Matt Dunkley, Kent council’s corporate director for education, said: “Our view remains that either funding must be increased dramatically, or the reforms need to be reviewed and updated to produce a sustainable budget for Send provision locally and nationally.”