Getting the national picture: Tell us your local SEND funding cuts stories

by Tania Tirraoro and Matt Keer

Tania: There is a national SEND funding crisis - we know this, but it seems the Department for Education (or at least some parts of it) are not aware of the extent of the problems that families are facing. Help us gather a national picture of SEND funding problems.

You may have seen the SEND Minister, Nadhim Zahawi on BBC Breakfast last week say, "A handful of local authorities are having problems, a minority" with meeting their funding obligations for SEND. Missed it? Watch it below or, if it's not showing up for you, click here to see BBC Breakfast reporter Jayne McCubbin take him to task (Matt again supplied the stats)

We think Mr Zahawi needs a bit of parental education, don't you? Parents up and down the country are sick to death of having to fight ever harder to get what their children are LEGALLY ENTITLED TO. The anger has mounted to a level where parents who already have far too much to do, are planning to take to the streets to protest. Is this what you want Mr Zahawi? But the problem, as Matt is about to explain, is not as simple as more money from the DfE. Local authortities cannot say it's not their fault.  

Here's Matt, to explain the background to the SEND funding crisis and then we want you to tell us what your local experience is - whatever your role in SEND - you can choose to be anonymous if you're nervous about speaking out. Please read Matt's info before doing so. 

The SEND funding crisis background from Matt Keer...

Matt: A new financial year is about to start. There’s more money for SEND this year than there was last year – but it’s going to be nowhere near enough to meet demand.  Financial pressure has been steadily building in SEND for years, and it increased more rapidly last year. With the new financial year starting this week, this pressure is going to rise further – and especially for high-needs SEND, which is heading for something close to financial meltdown. Here’s why…

How SEND funding works

Educational funding is doled out from Government to councils in a package known as the Designated Schools Grant. The DSG is split into four blocks, all of which are under financial strain right now. One of these blocks – the High Needs Block – is crucial for SEND. The High Needs Block is the source of the ‘top-up’ payments that support kids with high-needs SEND in mainstream school; it’s also used to fund special schools, and it supports young people with SEND in post-16 placements too. And the High Needs Block is in deep, deep trouble.

I looked at a sample of 44 local authorities last week. Every single one of them has a High Needs Block deficit, meaning that they spent more than they were allocated in that financial year. The total expected deficit in these LA’s High Needs Blocks was £110m – and that’s for 2017-18 alone.

Bundle in the deficits from previous years, and these LAs are running at least £160m short. And these are just the 44 LAs I looked at – others estimate the size of the national high-needs deficit in England at around £400m.  That’s a grim position. But it’s going to get tougher for SEND in the coming financial year, in part because of changes that the government has just made to financial plumbing in the schools sector.

Staring down the barrel

In recent years, LAs have been able to shift money between its main blocks of education funding. So if Mordor Borough Council’s High Needs Block was running short of funds, then Mordor could shift funds from another block – usually the bigger, beefier Schools Block, which funds mainstream maintained schools – to make up the shortfall, and vice versa.

The Government has now clamped down on these block transfers. From now onwards, councils can only move tiny fractions between blocks – and in most cases, they now need to apply to Whitehall for permission. Many councils applied for this permission for the coming financial year – but only 16 council applications got approved, and the amount the councils have been allowed to transfer won’t be enough to cover their entire High Needs Block shortfall.

This means that most councils are staring down the barrel of another substantial High Needs Block deficit this year – only this time, it’s a deficit they can’t dodge. They don’t have much in the way of reserve cash in their wider education budget – and strictly speaking, they’re not allowed to plan for a deficit budget, they have to aim to balance the books.

And that’s why you’re likely to see more savage cuts to SEND services this year – particularly at the more complex end of SEND, because this is where the biggest financial problems lie. These cuts are going to hit the specialist end of the sector hardest – but they’ll also have an immense impact on kids with SEND who are currently in mainstream. If your kid relies on top-up high-needs funding, there’s a very good chance that schools will find the top-up cash harder to get hold of – and if this funding is doled out using ‘bands’, watch out for the value of these bands dropping. If your child depends on specialist outreach services – peripatetic teachers of the deaf, for example – watch out for cuts in this area too.

The root of the problem

Fundamentally though, this is a problem of systems and culture, not just money. Local authorities probably do have a £400m gap between what they’re given from Government for high-needs SEND and what they spend on it. But the real gap is far greater than that, and the mechanism for bringing supply and demand back into balance isn’t just going to be fixed with a hefty dollop of cash.

The £400m isn’t the difference between what kids with SEND need, & what gets spent on them each year. It’s a balance-sheet variance - no more, no less. It isn’t the real difference between supply and demand. And this is a crucial point – because this is a £400m shortfall that already has local authority shenanigans baked into it.

The local authority doesn’t just manage supply of SEND services – it is powerfully placed to shape, distort and deny demand for those services. And it exerts this power without compunction, with scant regard for statutory duty, and without much fear of accountability. There are literally dozens of examples of how they do this on the SNJ site alone. Now read on and Tania will tell you how we can do it.

SEND parents united

The power isn't all one way. We have some powerful tools close to hand - the law being the main one. Across social media there are SEND parents sharing their knowledge and we also have professional, ethical, legal allies who share their own expertise and time. And there is SNJ, loud, influential and amplifying the parent voice. It's also important to acknowledge that good SEND practitioners are also struggling through this as they seek to give our children the help they need under dire circumstances. This month marks our 10th birthday and I have NEVER known the situation to be worse.  Let's mark our decade by bringing all our voices together to paint a national picture we can use at a strong force for change.

Tell us what's it's like where you are

This is not just for parents. We want to hear from you if you're:

  • A parent, or young person whose funding difficulties can be directly related back to cuts
  • A teacher, TA or school leader who is finding funding SEND hard- are you forced to redeploy your delegated SEND budget for essentials? Are you unable to support all your SEND pupils?
  • A local authority SEND worker/official who is forced to refuse support because of cuts, or sees staff redundancies, or otherwise compromise support
  • Someone who can provide exact sums cut from specific areas or as a whole
  • A voluntary service who has seen your funding cut and are unable to support disabled children as you used to.
  • A support worker or advocate with evidence of this
  • A SEN lawyer/ legal expert who can share specific incidents from LAs directly attributable to cuts
  • Anyone else with evidence of cuts to SEND provision to share.

As I said, if you feel more comforatble being anonymous, just put 'anon' or a pseudonym in the name field.

Specifics needed!

We need specifics:

  1. English local authority concerned,
  2. What was affected,
  3. Amount cut, lost or other shortfall,
  4. What was the result for a service, individual, disabled child or their family,
  5. Any other specific points we should know.

No need to go into many pages of detail - though I'm sure you could- we need to be able to easily get to the issues, so please use the above headings. Remember this is about funding cuts, rather than LA refusal to assess your child etc (unless you have evidence it's because of cuts.)

We will collate your experiences and make sure they are seen by the people who need to see it. We'll publish them here. We'll name and shame LAs if needed. We will share your experiences with our national media friends. any relevant media or research outlet interested (contact us). We will protect your privacy at all times and will not share your email outside SNJ.

***Tell us your SEND cuts news here***

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Special Needs Jungle at Special Needs Jungle
Special Needs Jungle was founded in 2008 as a personal SEN blog by Tania Tirraoro. It is now a multi-author, award-winning site covering special needs, disability, mental health and rare conditions in children & young people birth-25 years.
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