SEND demand sees council education deficit grow to £22.5m

A report published today by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has discovered a £1.3bn ‘financial black hole at the centre of the special educational needs and disability system – and it is growing rapidly’

Education crisis: SEND families have been fighting for their rights for several years

The deficit in Croydon Council’s DSG – the Dedicated Schools Grant – increased by more than one-fifth in the last financial year, as covid pressures and increasing demand for special education provision saw the borough’s schools spend an additional £4million of money that they don’t have.

Croydon’s DSG was in deficit by £22.52million by the end of the 2021-2022 financial year, according to figures obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for a special report on the growing crisis around funding for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities – SEND.

For cash-strapped Croydon, this increasing deficit in its education budget is presenting a significant strain on its finances, as the Town Hall looks to cut £38.4million from its overall spending this financial year. With the Whitehall-imposed commissioners watching every move, even after already axing many non-statutory services, Croydon is expected to cut a further £30million from its overall spending in 2023-2024.

And while Croydon’s DSG deficit is far from the worst – Tory-controlled counties Surrey (£118milion, up by more than £50million in the past year) and Kent (£103million) top this particular table – it is still enough to warrant the council submitting a recovery plan to the DfE.

Inside Croydon reported earlier this week how neighbouring Merton had needed a £28.8million bail-out from the DfE because of spiralling education budget deficits which official reports warned presented “a significant impact on the council’s resources and potentially the financial resilience of the authority”.

Code: few councils appear to follow their statutory guidance. Fewer still seem to be able to afford to

Croydon’s overall council finances, in case anyone needed reminding, went bust in November 2020 and last year the borough received what was then a record government bail-out of £120million. So going cap in hand to Whitehall again so soon because of issues within its education department might not be well-received.

Yet as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s report has discovered, In this respect, at least, the SEND funding crisis is hitting local authorities across the country.

The their report today says, “As the government launches a consultation about the future of SEND provision, an investigation by the Bureau has uncovered the human consequences of a desperately underfunded system. With a huge deficit across local authorities in England continuing to grow, the result is an increasingly adversarial process in which parents, schools and local authorities are pitched against one another, with a child’s needs appearing secondary to financial costs.”

It is that “adversarial” situation with which SEND families in Croydon, Sutton and Surrey are already only too familiar.

As Inside Croydon reported as long ago as 2017, the council was spending as much as one-third of its SEND budget on the legal costs of education tribunal cases, usually where the authority was seeking to avoid having to meet the full costs of children and young adults’ EHCPs – Education, Health and Care Plans, which are supposed to be agreed outlines of how the state will provide for the needs of youngsters, sometimes up to the age of 25.

The Bureau’s report today says that there is a financial black hole at the centre of the SEND system and it is growing rapidly.

“The Bureau’s investigation has found the special needs deficit across England has reached at least £1.3billion — an increase of around £450million in the last year alone.

For some local authorities, the growing debt is unsustainable.

Councils blame rising demand and increasing complexity of need, issues exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic and pressures they are struggling to meet due to a shortage of local government-funded SEND provision. This has led some – such as Merton – to become reliant on private schools, never the cheapest option. Some families are being forced to look for suitable placements further from home, taking children away from their local communities and leaving them with long journeys to and from school.

Across the country, at least 43,000 children are placed in schools or other education settings outside of their home local authority, the Bureau reports.

Of those, 3,300 are being educated more than 20 miles away. The Bureau found one case where a child is getting their schooling more than 400 miles away from their home – the distance from their family in Cornwall all the way to Newcastle at the opposite end of England.

Stephen Kingdom, spokesman for the Disabled Children’s Partnership, a coalition of 100 children’s and disability charities, said the Bureau’s investigation had exposed “worrying data about the distances disabled children are travelling just to go to school”.

Faced with government pressure to cut costs, some councils are planning to impose thresholds or introduce other changes that could make it more difficult for children to receive support, or threaten to withdraw or reduce what they already have. Some councils reject almost half of all requests for children to be assessed as to whether they need the extra support that comes with an EHCP.

Key findings

  • The special needs funding black hole in England has risen to £1.3bn – an increase of £465m (52%) in a single year
  • 3 in 4 local authorities have SEND funding deficits, some of which doubled or even tripled in the last 12 months
  • Some councils are attempting to cut costs by introducing measures that could make it more difficult for children to receive support, or reduce or remove help from those who already have it
  • Kent County Council’s deficit is £103m — the largest in cash terms of any local authority in England
  • Parts of the country do not have the capacity or specialist facilities attached to mainstream schools to cope with rising demand, leaving some councils reliant on more costly independent settings
  • Lack of local support and increasing complexity of need means some 43,000 SEND children in England are placed in schools outside of their home area, with 3,300 in settings that are an estimated 20 miles or more away from where they live

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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