7.1 The Head of Education Strategy and Development presented the report on the 2021/22 High Needs forecast and the current growth trends in Education Health and Care Plans (EHCP).
7.2 He reported that since the Schools Forum meeting in September 2021 there had been a further £613,000 increase in forecast expenditure, resulting in a forecast in-year deficit of just over £5.7M. The increased forecast expenditure was being driven by higher than forecast EHCP costs. The growth trend for EHCPs requests had continued to rise throughout the autumn terms. January 2021 to December 2021 saw an increase of 425 plans. The assumption was that that there would be an increase of 450 plans in the full 12-month period – 100 more plans than budgeted for. This had resulted in forecast expenditure for Primary EHCP costs increasing by £230k, Secondary EHCP costs by £120k and the cost of specialist placements by £250k.
7.3 The Forum was informed that the forecast deficit position for 2021/22 of £5.7M was greater than the previous year (£5.4M). The local authority had set out with the aim to see an improved position this year, but the 2% increase in top-up rates, significant increases in support for EHCPs in Post-16 and further education and the increase in initial requests for EHCPs had meant that the LA has been unable to reduce the in-year deficit position.
7.4 A table showing Gloucestershire’s position in comparison to the national picture and that of Gloucestershire’s statistical neighbours was presented. The Head of Education Strategy and Development explained that despite the growth Gloucestershire was experiencing, the percentage of the population supported by an EHCP in Gloucestershire was lower in both instances. It was therefore evident that Gloucestershire was not an outlier in terms of the pressures that the SEND service was facing. The local authority therefore 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 issue requiring national reform.
7.5 The Forum noted the draft 5-year plan. The Head of Education Strategy and Development emphasised that refining and being clear on the assumptions regarding EHCP growth would be critical for the local authority to lay out an effective 5-year plan that could bring the High Needs budget back into a balanced in-year position. The Forum agreed that the development of the forecast and the underlying assumptions would be a priority for the High Needs Budget Working Group in the spring term. The local authority planned to test the assumptions contained within the draft 5-year plan with the Group, looking at the impact of the adjustments, before the plan was brought to the Forum meeting in June 2022 for approval.
7.6 The Head of Education Strategy and Development explained that the local authority had based its forecasting on the premise that the additional funding coming into the High Needs Block over the past three financial years would continue going forward. The DfE had very recently announced that it was considering a 5% increase for High Needs funding in 2023/24 and a 3% increase in 2024/25, therefore resulting in a tailing off of this additional funding. He emphasised that this would result in at least an additional £20M of cumulative deficit in Gloucestershire. He informed members that he had raised this issue with the F40 Group and had suggested that the F40 advocate for the current funding levels to be maintained, at least until the SEND Review was published and the reform commenced so that there was no destabilisation of the current funding levels.
7.7 The Head of Education Strategy and Development reported that the DfE and ESFA were in discussions with some of the local authorities with the largest High Needs deficits. Gloucestershire’s position was as good as could reasonably be expected given the pressures and challenges. Some local authorities had in-year deficits greater than Gloucestershire’s overall cumulative deficit figure. The local authority had developed its 5-year plan in accordance with the DfE’s guidance and deficit management template.
7.8 The Forum noted that there were two key priority areas that the Joint Additional Needs and High Needs Transformation Programme was focussed on in the new year: testing and implementation of the new SEND banded funding model; and implementation of additional specialist places across the county. The local authority was also looking at potential ways of offering non-statutory funding to address short-term need, to avoid locking into long-term expensive statutory plans.
7.9 The Forum received the finalised descriptors and example provision maps. Members were informed that throughout the spring term, the local authority would be working with a number of individual schools to test the descriptors and develop provision maps for existing pupils/students with EHCPs. Assuming that testing and implementation worked well, the local authority was aiming for a wider roll out of the new system from September 2022.
7.10 The Head of Education Strategy and Development explained that the rising levels of need were placing significant pressure on the availability of specialist places. The local authority was looking at how the number of specialist places could be significantly increased in the coming years. Current data indicated that, should the trends continue as they were, at least an extra 100 places a year would need to be commissioned. The Forum noted the local authority’s plans to address the increasing levels of need as outlined in the report. The Forum was informed that officers would be working closely with the GASSH to move this forward. The expansion of specialist provision was supported by government policy and the recent announcement to invest £2.6b into specialist capital funding.
7.11 The Forum was looking to gain a greater understanding of whether there was scope for more of Gloucestershire’s High Needs pupils to have their needs met by Gloucestershire’s maintained specialist provision, rather than independent specialist provision both within and outside of the county, which was much more expensive. It was subsequently agreed that at the next meeting, the Forum would receive a detailed breakdown of the relevant data, including an update on the import/export data on the number of Gloucestershire High Needs pupils that other areas take, in comparison to the number of High Needs pupils Gloucestershire takes in from another area. The Head of Education Strategy and Development explained that the number of Gloucestershire’s High Need pupils in independent specialist provision was not out of balance with other local authorities. However, without increasing specialist provision in the county over the coming years, there was potential for this to become a significant issue.