Oxfordshire’s director of children’s services believes the county needs more clout and more cash to plug the black hole in special educational needs finances.
The number of people with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) in Oxfordshire is now above 5,000, 125 per cent up from what it was seven years ago.
Oxfordshire County Council, the body responsible for delivering EHCPs and the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision, says high needs block funding from the government has only gone up 49 per cent in that time.
The shortfall is funded by what is called a negative reserve, a bill that sits on the books of councils. As things stand, it does not need to be repaid until 2025, but the ongoing annual shortfall – currently predicted to be £17.5 million for the current financial year – is expected to result in a total deficit of £122 million by that point.
Kevin Gordon, director of children’s services at Oxfordshire County Council, told councillors on the people overview & scrutiny committee this week that there was no sign of promised national reform coming through on the legacy this leaves or the ongoing problem.
“I think we are at a very worrying, critical point,” he said. “This conversation will be happening in town halls up and down this land. We do need more funding.
“I think it is unlikely to come in the lifetime of this current parliament, and the reforms that are needed, financial and policy, will be some of the most challenging we ever do in this country around children.
“It is really disappointing that there is not as much progress being made with the national policy framework. We have not heard anything more about the green paper for SEND.
“We are bringing this paper to scrutiny to say we have got what we have got part of what we have to do in Oxfordshire is to use these resources as carefully and as wisely as we possibly can.
“I would like to introduce other terms – fairly and equitably. We would like a lot more money for these children, but without that coming, we have to ensure we are using this money in the best way we possibly can to reach those children who really, really need it, that our model of supporting children is the best we can build, supporting inclusion and supporting children in mainstream schools, so we have the money to afford the care that meets the needs of the thankfully relatively few children who do need more expensive care and placements.”
The report showed that the council expects to spend £92 million on SEND this financial year, £29 million of which is expected to go to private providers.
Some of those specialist placements are necessary, but a part of that cost is driven by the lack of placements in the county and parents who challenge the decisions of the council’s SEND professionals.
“I would like those children within our own special schools, not ones run by the private sector for profit,” added Mr Gordon.
“For some of those children, it is our contention that their needs could be met within a mainstream school.
“A lot of those children in independent, non-maintained schools have been placed there following a SEND tribunal where the parents have taken the council to court.
“When that happens, we don’t have anything we can do. Our view, as the professionals involved in the case, is that sometimes the need could be met elsewhere, but the system as it is at the moment, the national legislation, doesn’t allow us to decide for some children where their need can be best met, and where that is an effective, equitable use of the limited funds we have in this area.”
Oxfordshire County Council’s director of finance, Lorna Baxter, also explained that SEND funding could not be topped up from the county’s own funds.
“Regulations prohibit us from putting additional funding into the high needs block,” she said. “We can do that if we get specific approval from the secretary of state, but the position is that it is a statutory requirement to treat the funding in this way.”
The debt the council can run up is uncapped, with Mr Gordon estimating that the combined deficit nationally sits at around £2 billion.
Councillor Michael Waine (Con, Bicester North), a headteacher in Bicester for more than a quarter of a century, said: “We are in a very difficult situation. One could say that this area of work is on the edge, perhaps tipped over, and is broken. It needs to be looked at.
“The issues around the green paper need to be brought forward, and I hesitate to say there are so many organisations that are hiding behind COVID. I think this one needs to be pulled out and fully addressed.
“Oxfordshire is far from being alone in carrying this ridiculous, nonsensical deficit that can only be funded in one way.”