Council apply to trim Oxfordshire school pupil funding to push more money into special educational needs

Oxfordshire County Council will apply to trim funding for every school pupil to push £2.38 million into special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision.
Oxfordshire County Council apply for to push £2.38 million into special educational needs and disabilities provisions.Oxfordshire County Council apply for to push £2.38 million into special educational needs and disabilities provisions.
Oxfordshire County Council apply for to push £2.38 million into special educational needs and disabilities provisions.

Ninety per cent of the county's schools that responded objected but Councillor Liz Brighouse OBE (Lab, Churchill & Lye Valley), who oversees children, education and young people’s services, insists the measures are necessary and will save money in the long term.

A significant portion of the funding councils get for schools comes from the age-weighted pupil unit (AWPU), the basic level of funding for each child.

The same councils also have to fund the requirements of those with SEND with many having to overspend to meet statutory obligations, although the extra costs are ring fenced as a bill that does not need to be paid until 2025.

Oxfordshire expects to overspend by £17.5 million in the current financial year and build up a total deficit of £122 million by 2025.

A recent council report showed it expects to spend £92 million on SEND this financial year, £29 million of which is expected to go to private providers, some of which are outside Oxfordshire.

Some of those specialist placements are necessary but a part of that cost is driven by the lack of placements in the county and parents who challenge the decisions of the council’s SEND professionals.

In a bid to plug that gap, the county will apply to take the maximum it is permitted to – 0.5 per cent – from its dedicated schools grant (DSG) for the financial year starting in April 2023, £2.38 million, which will be targeted at improving services and increasing the number of places, reducing the need for private providers.

It would mean a 0.72 per cent reduction in the AWPU of every pupil in Oxfordshire, which is around £25 per child per year in primary school, £35 for those in school years seven to nine and £40 for those in years 10 and 11.

The county requires permission from the secretary of state for education to implement the budget shift.

In backing the recommendation of council officers, Cllr Brighouse said “it will still be a pittance” when set against an anticipated £20 million shortfall for SEND in 2023-24.

“That just continues and will until the government decides to sort it out, and that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon,” she said.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Brighouse said: “As the number of children with special educational needs goes up, so the deficit goes up.

“There has been a 125 per cent uplift in the number of children we are funding through the high needs block and we have had an uplift in funding of around 49 per cent so it hasn’t met the needs – it hasn’t nationally and it hasn’t here, some local authorities have even bigger problems than we do.

“We feel if we can better fund our mainstream schools, more special schools in the county and units within our schools to support children with special educational needs, then that will be a better way to spend money and it will cost much less than out-of-county boarding.

“It is to try to start shifting the way the money is spent.”

Asked what she would say to the schools that had objected, Cllr Brighouse replied: “We need to remember there are schools where maybe a third of children have special educational needs and disabilities.

“Some schools have many fewer children but we do need to be more equitable in terms of funding children with special educational needs and disabilities and this is one way to do it, to enable those children to stay in mainstream schools.

“Those schools are working really hard to keep children close to home, in their communities, and we need to be able to help them to do that – I would hope all schools want to do that.

“The purpose of this is to reduce the amount of money that we have to spend by keeping our children closer.

“A big part is very often going into private or commercial establishments to support the fewest number of children, some of whom could have their needs met appropriately in schools in the county but those schools need the extra support to do that."