High-needs pressures have pushed around one in five councils so far into the red that they are legally required to draw up a recovery plan.
The need to submit three-year recovery plans was introduced by the Education and Skills Funding Agency this year.
And of the 131 councils that provided Tes with replies to freedom of information requests – 30 (23 per cent) said they had an education funding deficit which required them to submit a report to the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
Every one of these councils said the deficit was due to an overspend on high-needs – money set aside for children with severe special educational needs and some other specialist provision.
One London councillor said that the high-needs funding crisis was leaving families “sick with worry” about whether their children’s support would continue – and called for more government funding.
The SEND funding 'crisis'
Councillor Larry Culhane, cabinet member for children and education at the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has to submit a recovery plan, said: “The funding crisis for SEND provision is jeopardising our schools' budgets, leaving councils up and down the country with huge debt and leaving the affected families sick with worry about whether or not their children will continue to get the support they need.
"In Hammersmith and Fulham, young people with SEND will forever be a top priority, and all we're asking of the government is to follow suit by solving this crisis and reversing years of harmful underfunding.”
In Cambridgeshire, the council said that support for some children may have to be reduced in order to balance budgets. A council spokesperson said: "Despite a new formula, the high-needs block funding is not reflective of the current level of need or costs for children in Cambridgeshire with SEND.
“We strongly encourage schools to be inclusive and support children in their communities, but the pressure on funding and the need to support children with the most complex needs may require the schools forum to consider reducing support to schools for those children with additional needs as we strive to create a balanced budget position."
And Adam Boddison, chief executive of SEND charity Nasen, said: “Local authorities are saying that they have made all the efficiency savings they can and have stopped cutting the fat, they are now not even cutting the flesh – they are cutting into the bone.”
Rising high-needs costs have been attributed to factors including the increasing number of children requiring education, health and care plans (ECHPs) and an extension to the age range covered by EHCP plans from age 2-19 to birth-25, under the SEND reforms in 2014.
Previous research from the Local Government Association predicted that there would be a £536 million funding gap in support for children with special educational needs in 2018-19.
The increasing pressures are underlined by the fact that of the 30 councils that are drawing up recovery plans now, just five told the Tes that they had reported a deficit in 2014-15. Of the remainder, three gave no information and the rest had a surplus or balanced budget.
Councils are given money through the dedicated schools grant (DSG) to spend on education in their area.
Those councils that have a cumulative deficit of 1 per cent on the DSG by the end of the 2018-19 financial year had to submit a plan to the Education and Skills Funding Agency by the end of June showing how they will balance the books within three years.
Julia Harnden, the Association of School and College Leaders’ (ASCL) funding specialist, said: “We need to be sure that when these recovery plans are agreed, there isn't a risk of making short-term decisions to make savings that will undermine future provision, and the knock-on effect is incurring further additional costs later down the line.
"There are lots of things we have to be mindful of here. Not least that we need to be confident that when these recovery plans are being considered they are being considered in terms of the impact on children and we need to be confident that experts in SEND are really closely involved in reviewing those plans.”
The Local Government Association, which represents local authorities, said that more money was needed. Councillor Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “We are worried that the new requirement on councils fails to acknowledge the reason for the increase in the number of councils reporting a deficit in the Dedicated Schools Grant; that there is insufficient high-needs funding available to meet the increase in demand for support from children, young people and their families.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We owe it to the next generation to ensure that our education system is world-class, and that nothing stands in the way of our young people having the best choices in life, whatever course they take.
“The £14 billion funding increase – the largest cash boost in a generation – means our schools can continue to raise standards and build an education system that boosts productivity, improves social mobility and equips children with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the bright future that lies ahead.
“In addition to this package, schools will receive £4.4billion over three years to cover rising pension costs and ensure they can focus their resources on the front line.”
The government had announced that an extra £14.4 billion will be invested into schools between now and 2022-23 with £700 million for children with SEND.