The special needs and disabilities (SEND) crisis today is long in the making. It pertains to practice quality issues, sufficiency of provision, timeliness, and critically, a shortfall in funding. The financial crisis is a reflection of the historical inequity of allocations within the high needs blocks of councils’ Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG), increased complexity of need, scarcity pricing and rising demand. According to the Local Government Association, the national funding gap will be between £1.2bn and £1.6bn by 2021 and whilst the additional £780m announced recently is welcome, it’s akin to using a sticking plaster to cover a gaping wound.
The unintended consequences of the reforms, juxtaposed to statutory accounting convention are beginning to impact on the viability of many councils across the country, as rising deficits in DSG must be adequately covered by reserves to meet auditors’ requirements. This is manifesting itself in councils making deeper cuts in their General Funds, qualification of statutory accounts in some authorities, and left unchecked, there will be an increased risk of section 151 officers having to contemplate the dreaded S114 notice.
In Kingston our SEND transformation plan is progressing at pace. Recent analysis confirms our schools are inclusive places, numbers of children with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) are in line with statistical neighbours at 2.9% and due to the creation of an additional 163 places in in-borough mainstream settings, unit costs are starting to fall. 98% of EHCPs are issued within statutory 20 week period, against a national average of 60% (2018) and demand is now augmenting at a slower pace than seen nationally.
Our SEND Partnership Board is focusing on reducing demand through earlier intervention, developing innovative and creative solutions but this will not be sufficient to address the appreciable structural deficit. This is because it takes time to achieve significant savings, as many pupils will be settled in placements for the long term and it’s their outcomes we should all hold paramount.
Given a growing number of LAs experiencing similar challenges, the DfE consultation on revised arrangements for DSG is timely. It’s grossly unfair to place the burden on tax-payers locally for a problem neither they nor their councils created. Either sufficient funding should be made available or balances should be held centrally as opposed to LA balance sheets. With such a financial disparity, Education Select Committee findings and LAs losing nine out of 10 Tribunals, a paradigm shift is what is required and the time for it is now.
Ian Thomas CBE is chief executive of Kingston upon Thames RLBC