Funding problems have led 20 councils to ask for permission to take back money from schools to support special needs education, against the wishes of local headteachers, Tes can reveal.
Dorset, Dudley, Hartlepool, North Yorkshire, Richmond upon Thames and South Gloucestershire all asked the Department for Education last term for permission to transfer more than 0.5 per cent out of the "schools block" – the main grant due to go to schools – to pay for high-needs SEND provision outside mainstream schools.
The requests were made against the wishes of their local schools’ forum, the consultative body made up of representatives from schools and academies in an authority area.
Barnet, Central Bedfordshire, Devon, Essex, Hackney, Harrow, Manchester, Oxfordshire, Sefton, Somerset, St Helens, Staffordshire, Surrey and Waltham Forest have also gone against their school forums' wishes and have asked to make a transfer of 0.5 per cent or less out of the schools' money.
The figures, obtained by Tes from the DfE under a freedom of information request, were correct on 20 December.
School funding pressures
“The transfer requests are a reflection of just how bad things are in some areas for both mainstream schools and high-needs provision," Julia Harnden, funding specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said.
"Local authorities are desperately trying to transfer funds from the schools' block into the high-needs block to plug funding gaps but local schools cannot afford to take the financial hit. It is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
“The tragedy is that the impact will be on the most vulnerable pupils. The paucity of funding in the high-needs block affects provision for children with the most complex needs, while reducing the schools' block makes it more difficult for schools to provide support for pupils with special educational needs.”
There has been growing concern about the shortfall of money for high-needs pupils. A survey of 73 councils by the Local Government Association in November 2018 showed a projected shortfall of £536 million.
From 2018-19, councils have been allowed to transfer up to 0.5 per cent of schools' block funding to the "high-needs block". But if they don't have consent from their schools' forum, then they must apply to the education secretary for permission to move the money.
They can also apply for permission to transfer more than 0.5 per cent, but this can only be done with the express permission of the education secretary.
The freedom of information request also revealed that schools' forums in a further 15 authorities consented to council requests to move more than 0.5 per cent from mainstream schools to high-needs special education.
On 17 December, Damian Hinds, the education secretary, announced that the high-needs block would be increased by £125 million in 2018-29 and £125 million in 2019-20. Since then, councils which had submitted requests to transfer funding between blocks have been asked whether they want to reduce or withdraw them.
At least one – South Gloucestershire – is considering withdrawing its request.
Ms Harnden described the additional high-needs funding as "the one crumb of comfort". "However, the level of additional funding is not sufficient to solve this issue and the pressure on the high-needs system will persist until there is a more realistic funding settlement," she said.
DfE decisions on allowing or rejecting the funding transfers have not yet been made.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Since 2017, we have provided every local authority more money for every pupil in every school. But we recognise the budgeting challenges schools face and which is why we announced an additional £250 million in funding for high needs over this financial year and the next.
"It is for local authorities, in agreement with local schools, to decide whether they transfer some funding into high needs based on their individual requirements, and we trust them in these judgements.”