Cambridgeshire schools to get funding increase - but black hole in ‘high needs’ budget continues to grow
Cambridgeshire’s schools are set to receive a “significant” increase in funding this year, but the budget deficit for high needs learning continues to grow.
The county’s combined education budget across state schools looks set to rise by £24.3million, or 4.8 per cent, in the financial year 2021-22.
But when it comes to funding for the high needs section of the schools budget, the county council’s director of education, Jonathan Lewis, has said the increase is still not keeping pace with demand – which is the same message as last year.
The high needs education budget includes provision for special educational needs and disability learning (SEND), as well as provision for children with other high support needs and “our most vulnerable children”. It is set to increase by £7million, or 9.2 per cent.
But the council says this is “still significantly lower than the required increase to meet current high needs pressures,” which have resulted from a “continuing increase in the number of high needs learners and complexity of need”.
The cumulative deficit on the county’s high needs education budget is forecast to reach £27million by April – over a third of the total high needs budget – rising to around £38 million the year after if spiralling costs are not addressed or further funding received.
Mr Lewis said the “opportunity cost” to the council of carrying the deficit is between £500,000 and £700,000 a year, and that the situation needs to be addressed “because it’s just building”.
Mr Lewis told Cambridgeshire County Council’s children and young people committee on Tuesday (January 19) that the council is “very grateful” for the “quite significant” increase in funding, but he also described it as “not enough”.
He described deficits on high needs education spending as a national issue, saying that his understanding of the situation is that “the majority of local authorities” have such a deficit now.
He described the growing high needs education deficit in Cambridgeshire as a “ridiculous situation” and said that he believes more than half the local authorities in the country also have a deficit on the same budget, which he said “shows perhaps how the funding formula doesn’t necessarily work”.
There has been cross-party criticism for the government’s funding of Cambridgeshire schools on the council.
The chair of the committee, Conservative councillor Simon Bywater said the council is “grateful to receive the funding that we have had,” but said “it’s unsustainable”. He said “anybody worth their salt” who has followed schools funding over the last few years “will see it’s on a path of self-destruction”.
The leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the council, councillor Lucy Nethsingha, told the director of education “I share your extraordinary frustration with this situation,” which she described as “impossible”.
Mr Lewis also announced that the government has for the second year in a row rejected the county council’s request to transfer funds from its general schools budget to its high needs budget.
For the first time last year, the county council broke with the county’s schools forum – a group made up of representatives from Cambridgeshire’s schools – and against the forum’s wishes requested to transfer 1.8 per cent of the dedicated schools grant from the general schools budget to the high needs budget. The secretary of state for education, Conservative Gavin Williamson, declined the request.
This year, again against the wishes of the schools forum, and in a bid to tackle the growing deficit, the council attempted to transfer one per cent of the £405 million general schools budget to the £83 million high needs budget. But the council has again been refused.
Mr Lewis also described an apparent contradiction between funding and government expectations.
Mr Lewis said: “The Department for Education officials are telling us our activity and approach is in line with their expectations and the activity is correct for the needs of our children”.
He added: “We are doing what we should be doing and the costs are higher than our funding.”
Liberal Democrat Peter Downes, the council’s representative on the F40 group – a group of councils which says its members “are among the worst funded in the country in terms of per pupil funding” – said research from 2020 indicated Cambridgeshire’s high needs deficit is the seventh highest in the country as a proportion of its budget.
Mr Lewis said: “Our schools are some of the of the lowest funded in the country.”
When the council’s requested budget transfer was blocked again by the government this year, Mr Lewis said he asked for an explanation as to why. “We’ve had no explanation of why or the rationale behind it, or what the national position on what that is,” he said.
“It would be interesting to know whether there is a rationale of why they think Cambridgeshire can continue to build a deficit,” he said.
The council will now transfer 0.16 per cent of its general schools budget to its high needs budget, which will not require approval from the secretary of state. Mr Lewis said owing to the increase in overall schools funding, once the allocation formula had been applied “for the first time I think in Cambridgeshire’s history we actually had a surplus”, which equates to £634,000 – the amount now to be transferred to the high needs budget.
At the schools forum on January 15, the principal of Ely College, Richard Spencer, compared the council’s initial plan to transfer one per cent of its general schools budget to the high needs budget to “putting a finger into a dyke that is rapidly bursting”.
He expressed sympathy with the council’s position, but said schools voting by a majority against the transfer “wasn’t an act of belligerent self-interest on behalf of schools, it was a conscious political position that we adopted, really to point out that what we were being asked to do was an inadequate solution to an intolerable position, and to strengthen [the council’s] case in arguing for a better settlement for the high needs block”.
The 0.16 per cent transfer means the council can postpone an intended consultation plan for a 10 per cent cut to “top up funding” for high needs pupils in mainstream schools.
Mr Spencer said that in the circumstances the 0.16 per cent transfer is a “perfectly reasonable transfer to approve” for that reason.