Send: Concern as councils expect £1bn special educational needs shortfall

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The BBC asked all the local authorities in England about the gap between funding and what they are actually spending out of their high needs budget.

The 100 that responded about the last financial year reported a deficit of £586m.

When asked about this year, 113 councils, not all the same ones, forecast a collective shortfall of £926m.

The financial pressures have become more visible and urgent, with 38 local authorities entering into bailout agreements with government.

In these “safety valve” deals, they receive some extra funding in return for an agreement to to cut Send deficits.

This has set off alarm bells among parent groups who fear it may lead to limits being imposed on support.

The Independent Provider of Special Education Advice is a charity that helps families navigate the system.

They asked councils in the safety valve programme to provide details of what they would involve, receiving some information from 27.

Catriona Moore from the charity says some appear to be trying to reduce their legal obligations by reducing the number of EHCPs issued.

She said what they found was ”very little focus on children’s needs” and much more on “the financial bottom line”.

In our BBC investigation, the council with the biggest shortfall in proportion to its funding is not in the government’s bailout programme.

Cheshire East had a budget of around £56m for Send for the last financial year, and ended up spending £88m.

Under a special agreement in place with all councils in England until 2026, that deficit is added to what is called a “negative reserve”.

Cllr Sam Corcoran, the Labour leader of the council, describes this as hiding the problem, and says it’s part of a “broken system” that isn’t working for councils or families.

“It means that in 2026 we have a huge problem,” he says. “It’s a bit like we’ve put the money on a credit card, and that credit card has to be paid back in two years’ time.”

In the meantime, he says the council will have to pay between £3m and £6m in interest on that borrowing.

Cllr Corcoran is also the deputy chair of a cross party network representing County Councils.

Their research suggests that if the deal to keep these deficits off the books isn’t renewed, or the extra money found by 2026, around a quarter of councils might need to ask for a government bailout.

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The economists at the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that, since 2015, meeting Send needs has absorbed around half the cash increase in school spending in England, around £3.5bn.

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