33.1 The Head of Education Strategy and Development provided an update on the High Needs forecast for 2021/22 and the current growth trends in Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).
33.2 As reported at the last School’s Forum meeting in September there had been a further £660,000 increase in costs which has resulted in a forecast in-year deficit of just over £5M. The forecast now included a 2% increase to top-ups as agreed at the previous Schools Forum meeting. To offset this cost, the LA had made an adjustment in the forecast expenditure on external Alternative Provision, this had been possible due to the reduced pressure the Alternative Provision service.
33.3 He reported that the most significant movement was in the College and FE budget, where there had been a sharp increase in the number of places. An overview of the current mainstream EHCP profile was presented to the Forum which showed the allocation of funding into the different year groups. It was noted that there had been a rise in primary, which may then flow through into secondary. The spike in years 10 and 11 was starting to flow through into Post-16. Small changes in trends and average costs in other budget areas, in this case the year 11 cohort, could have a significant impact. To address those issues, the LA had developed a more detailed activity led financial model incorporating the various component budgets supporting High Needs. The model would look back over the last three years to assess trends, and then forecast a 5 year forward plan. Officers were confident that the model would significantly improve the LA’s ability to accurately forecast and plan the budget for the next financial year. The model had been developed in line with the DfE Dedicated Schools Grant Management Plan, to aid future discussions with the DfE. It was noted that the Forum would receive further information on the model at the 13 January 2022 Schools Forum meeting.
33.4 The Forum noted that EHCP numbers were continuing to rise – the requests to assess in the June-September period were significantly up on last year. The LA was planning to use a net increase of 400 new plans to forecast budget. As part of the modelling work, there would be close look at the financial impact of that assumption over a 5 year period.
33.5 The forecast High Needs in-year deficit of just over £5M was broadly in line with previous year’s budget position. The Head of Education Strategy and Development explained that the position was as good as could be reasonably expected, given the changes in the trends and pressures on the system. Some LAs were reporting significant in-year High Needs deficit budgets – in one case £22M.
33.6 The Head of Education Strategy and Development explained that there was now an increased focus on the Post-16 transition process, making sure that the review process was effective, and that plans were ceased or reduced, as required. The SEND Casework Team was under such pressure due to the volume of EHCPs in the system, that currently the annual reviews did not always take place on time.
33.7 Members were informed that it would take around 2/3 years for the benefits of the earlier intervention work being undertaken to start having an impact on the budget position - this was being built into the modelling work. In addition, the impact of the investment in special school places and therefore a reduction on the reliance on out of county placements would also need to be factored into the modelling work. Initial indications were that there was potential for an in-year High Needs balance by 2024/25; however, there was likely to be a £18m deficit by that time.
33.8 Members were informed that the pressure on the High Needs budget was predominantly created by the rising level of need - this was a national issue. The LA wanted to avoid making reactionary local decisions that would negatively affect the quality of provision for children with additional needs, when this was clearly a national crisis affected by national policy. Therefore the publication of the government’s SEND review, which should give a clear steer nationally, was eagerly awaited. It was also anticipated that the government would undertake a High Needs consultation at some point in the near future.
33.9 The Head of Education Strategy and Development reported that the government would soon provide clarity on how Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) deficits would be treated. There was currently a protection in place so that LAs did not have to include the DSG deficit in the overall LA deficit reporting; however, this protection would run out at some point in the near future. He explained that the DfE and ESFA were currently working with some LAs, and taking an individualised approach to dealing with DSG deficits. However, as this was a national problem, a number of organisations were pushing the government to take a national approach.
33.10 The Forum noted the breakdown of the costs and trends for specialist and independent specialist provision.
33.11 The Director of Children’s Services emphasised that it was important to think about using the funding coming into Gloucestershire more effectively, to invest more in local special school places, which would mean fewer children needing to be placed out of the county in expensive residential and independent special schools. He recognised that Gloucestershire, in comparison to other LAs, was currently disproportionately placing children in out of county specialist provision.
33.12 In response to a question, the Head of Education Strategy and Development explained there was scope for some of the additional funding for places for children and young people with SEND, to be used for Alternative Provision. There was an opportunity to look at improving some of the infrastructure for Alternative Provision schools in the county and the way in which they were used. He stressed however, that until there was further guidance from the DfE on how the funding could be accessed, it was difficult to comment on exactly how the funding could be utilised. If the DfE did insist that it could only go through the free school programme, then discussions would take place locally about what applications could be submitted through the free school programme, in partnership with the Mainstream, Special, and the Alternative Provision sectors.
33.13 The Head of Education Strategy and Development explained that the High Needs Budget workshop meeting had taken place on 20 October 2021. The focus of this meeting was on understanding the strategy and context of the High Needs budget. Moving forward the plan was for a High Needs Budget Working Group to take an in-depth look at specifically targeted areas and plans, to assess the impact and to ensure that the LA was actively taking the right approach.
33.14 In response to a question, the Head of Education Strategy and Development explained that the SEND team was looking at the EHCP trends around year 6 and year 7, in an aim to understand the reason behind the significant variation in the number of EHCPs in the system in those two year groups. There was currently a dip in number of EHCP requests in year 6 and then a marked increase in the number of requests in year 7. He recognised that further analysis was needed on the data. If this was a transitional issue then that would be where changes to the funding system would be important so that support could be provided outside of a statutory EHCP process in a more effective and timely manner to support the children during that time of need. The Forum identified this as an area for the working group to take an in-depth look at.