Plea to fund special needs education properly

Overspends in Norfolk’s education budget are now ‘baked in’ and the County Council needs to face up to funding special needs properly.

I have written to the Council’s Finance chief ahead of next Monday’s Cabinet meeting, pointing out that the overspend in the High Needs budget is set to hit £19 million. The High Needs budget funds additional support for children who need it to access education.

Overspends have been growing year on year. Demand for support has been growing for a long time too. The Council’s response is to ask for time for transformation plans to deliver savings but they just never seem to appear. The only real answer is to accept that the money needs to be invested in supporting children now and to put enough in the budget to fund it.

The full text of my email to Cllr Jamieson is below.

From: Maxfield, Edward

Sent: 04 September 2020 12:07
To: Jamieson, Andrew
Subject: High Needs Block funding

Dear Andrew

I cannot be at the Cabinet meeting on Monday so I’m writing now in relation to a couple of Children’s Services items in the financial reports on the agenda.

The papers state that government funding for additional school and college transport costs (£5.5m) will be fully spent in the first half of the Autumn term. It wasn’t clear to me what the plan is when it comes to paying the transport costs after that. It seems highly unlikely that social distancing requirements will be removed before the end of the calendar year and quite possible they will persist until Easter. If that happens, what is the total additional cost we are expecting the council to have to bear in relation to these costs? As you represent a rural division yourself you will understand how important school and college transport is in giving everyone an equal opportunity to access education regardless of where they live.

The report tells us that there is a £9.7m overspend on the High Needs Block – £1.2m more than previously forecast. This is attributed to ‘demographic factors’. I’ve made the point before that demographic factors, be it rurality or growing demand, really shouldn’t come as a surprise because the nationwide growth in demand for additional needs support in schools has been happening for some years.

The brought forward overspend will be £19 million with a projected £6m increase in spending. In the past I believe I am right in saying that the council has effectively borrowed from school budget balances to cover the short-fall but now LMS balances stand at less than half this total projected overspend. Is this really a sustainable position?

On top of all of that the medium term financial strategy is looking to squeeze an extra £15.4m from Children’s Services funding over the next four years. My worry is that these factors taken together will increase the pressure on the Council to manoeuvre around it’s obligations to families, especially those most in need of support, leaving them short-changed.

I know council finances are complicated and the current situation is particularly uncertain but would it not be better to acknowledge that the over-spends in High Needs support are effectively baked in and a simple solution that everyone could grasp would be to allocate adequate funding to the service rather than pinning hopes on bail-outs and transformation plans?

With very best wishes

Ed Maxfield
County Councillor for Mundesley Division
Tel. 07449 706215
Twitter: @MaxfieldEd
Facebook: ed.maxfield.94