Cllr Chris Kennedy: "I support families taking action over SEND funding"
This week families from across the country will mount a High Court challenge against the Government's funding of support for children and young adults with special educational needs. Cllr Chris Kennedy, Cabinet Member with responsibility for SEND, reflects on the situation in Hackney and why local authorities urgently need more funding.
Today, families from across the country will head to the High Court to call on the Government to better fund special needs education. I support this action and hope that it will shine a light on a funding crisis these parents - and local councils - have been warning the Government about for a number of years.
Since the introduction of the Children and Families Act 2014, the most significant change of which was the move from Statements of SEN to Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), councils across the country have been spending significantly more money than the government gives them for SEND in the High Needs Block of the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG).
This is certainly the case in Hackney where there are now over 1,900 children and young people with EHCPs living in the borough. There has been a significant increase in the number of these since the 2014 conversion from Statements - approximately 36% over the last 5 years, with an average annual growth of 6.1%. Moreover, pupils with EHCPs are staying in the system for longer than before – entering earlier and remaining up to 25 years of age. The consequence is that the need for specialist places is outstripping supply and national funding does not match local spending in meeting these needs.
For the financial year 2018/19 government allocated Hackney about £42.5m in High Needs funding, but we spent closer to £52m so our final overspend last year was over £9m. The current forecast suggests that, with appropriate future planning and current cost control, that overspend is likely to increase by £1.5m - £1.7m a year in the medium term. It is currently being met through a combination of banked savings elsewhere in the education service; disapplication of DSG (moving money from the Main Schools Block to the High Needs Block i.e. robbing Peter to pay Paul); one-off grants and reserves.
The significant increases in pupil population and the level of SEND need and complexity in the last five years are not reflected by slightly increased national funding and neither are the new responsibilities in the Act for 0-5 and 19-25 year old SEND provision. In early 2019 our Audit Committee conducted a highly focussed piece of work on this area to delve into the cost pressures and the steps being taken to manage them. They verified that we are doing all we can as a Council to maintain the quality of service necessary for some of our most vulnerable residents, whilst at the same time ensuring we are working as efficiently as possible. However, they concluded that this service area would continue to be a growing drain on council reserves without significant changes in national funding arrangements.
With such severe resource challenges we were forced to make difficult funding decisions which resulted in us being judicially reviewed by concerned families. That case is still outstanding and is symptomatic of local authorities’ struggles across the country to meet legislative requirements. Nationally, less than 60% of EHCP assessments are completed within the required 20 week timeframe.
Further provision in the borough is an obvious part of the solution to this problem, but capital grant that we applied for to government, in order to build a new free school with 24 further places, was turned down. Mainstream settings are feeling the pinch too, with uncertainty about future funding leading many schools to declare that they cannot meet the needs of SEND children whose parents wish them to attend that school.
Parents and carers have found themselves forced to take hard-pressed local authorities to SEND tribunals and in three cases to the High Court. Up until now it seems that the Government has escaped such specific legal challenge. We are pleased parents who are now taking this action are giving the issue a high profile.
For Hackney the current position is unsustainable: in blunt terms the Government is providing us with only 80% of the money which we have to spend to meet our duties towards our SEND young people. For Hackney to provide the difference we are having to make very difficult decisions which involve significant cuts to other areas. Such under-funding will in the long term impact on the borough as a whole which is unconscionable.