Failure to overhaul special educational needs in Central Bedfordshire could create £189m deficit in 5 years

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Council could hit deficit if it doesn't build specialist provision and attempt to increase early intervention, meeting told

Failing to overhaul special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision in Central Bedfordshire could potentially create an accumulative dedicated schools grant deficit of £189.1m within five years, a meeting heard.

Education, health and care plan (EHCP) numbers could reach 4,500 by 2028, Central Bedfordshire Council’s schools forum was warned. There were 474 in 2021, while the average number in Central Bedfordshire from 2016 to 2019 was 214.

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Helping CBC to deliver better value, SEND specialist Jo Hedley explained: “The work has been focused around our deficit management plan based on the huge increases in demand in need we’ve been seeing, with a 23 per cent increase in EHCPs.

Central Beds Council headquarters.Central Beds Council headquarters.
Central Beds Council headquarters.

“All councils with a deficit have to submit their plan to the Department for Education (DfE) and we’ll need to do this annually to monitor the progress.

“It’s a supportive and standard template designed for local authorities to manage their dedicated schools grant. This gives us an evidence-based and strategic way to plan provision for children and young people with SEND.

“It’s not a recovery plan at present, and there’s further work needed to balance that budget and accumulative deficit. We’ll continue to receive monitoring visits and support from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and the DfE.

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“Currently dedicated school grant spend is protected, which prevents those accumulative overspends being reflected in our accounts. There are moves for that protection to be removed, at which point we’ll find ourselves in a difficult financial position.

“The present overspend nationally is £4.6bn. So significant intervention is required from central government for a resolution to be found nationally. Much of the grant received was used to roll out therapeutic thinking across schools in Central Bedfordshire.

“We’ve had to do a complete overhaul of the data, including forecasting potential numbers of children and financial cost projectories, and the full reassessment of those mitigations identified originally.

“It’s posing a significant challenge for Central Bedfordshire around an effective sustainable SEND system,” she added. “When we look at the annual in-year overspend for the dedicated schools grant it’s £6.4m, with an accumulative grant deficit of £10.8m.

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“The demand and EHCP numbers could reach 4,500 by 2028, if we do nothing. If we don’t build specialist provision and attempt to increase early intervention, an unmitigated accumulative deficit of £189.1m could be reached.

“A new governance structure is required with an extra SEND finance group, but we’re also looking at ensuring those lines of accountability are right through our system. We want to ensure Central Beds is doing its best to ensure we’re getting value for money and that those needs are met early.”

Karen Hayward, of Sandy Secondary School, who chairs the forum, said: “It’s clear this isn’t a quick fix. It won’t lead to a balanced budget, but the intentions are for every child’s needs to be met appropriately, with a potential change in thinking to achieve that.”

Asked whether more alternative provision is required, Ms Hedley replied: “In Central Bedfordshire there’s quite a robust alternative provision offer for children and young people. The sufficiency needs to increase, rather than reducing alternative provision.”