Special schools could be stripped of vital money for some of the country's most vulnerable students after a funding overhaul takes place next month, experts have warned.
For the first time, the shake-up will allocate money to schools based on precise student numbers, meaning that schools will need to predict in advance how many students they will have and the care they will require. All students will be funded at the same basic rate, with schools having to negotiate top-up cash from local authorities for children with more severe needs.
The number of students at special schools often fluctuates and heads are concerned that the new system will leave them temporarily short of funding if extra students arrive mid-year or children require more expensive support than expected.
"The impact will be that some schools will not have the level of funding they were expecting," said Claire Dorer, chief executive of the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools.
The changes are part of wider reforms planned for the special educational needs (SEN) system in England, including the replacement of statements with joint education, health and care plans, which last from birth to age 25.
According to Department for Education officials, the funding will more accurately reflect local need. "Providers that are in demand should be able to expand, while empty places should not be funded indefinitely," they have said.
But Julie Cordiner, who works with the Middlesbrough Achievement Partnership, a project led by heads, said heads in the area "are shocked by the complexity of the new system and the things they are going to have to do from now on".
Middlesbrough Council is having to top up the #163;17.2 million it will be given for high-needs students in 2013-14 with #163;2.2 million that was allocated for mainstream schools.
"But there will come a tipping point where we can't do this any more, because mainstream school funding is protected at a minimum guaranteed level," Ms Cordiner said. "Under the old system, local authorities would give schools the full cost of running a certain number of places. The government thinks this meant empty places were being funded, which wasn't the case in Middlesbrough and many other local authorities."
Sam Ellis, funding specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders, said there is uncertainty about how the new system will work. "If the funding given to schools under the new system mirrors what schools actually need there will not be a problem," he said. "But where it doesn't, schools may find themselves in difficulties.
"If the school has a far higher number of pupils than they are receiving funding for, they will have to find a way of supporting those pupils. You could also have schools receiving money for pupils they haven't got."
David Bateson, vice-chair of the Federation of Leaders in Special Education, said he was optimistic that the funding changes would work, but added that in a "worst-case scenario" schools could be forced to lose members of staff if their funding decreased.
A DfE spokeswoman said the reforms would lead to better provision for young people with SEN. "Providing money for specialist services on a per-student basis, rather than a ballpark predicted figure, will make sure that resources are directed to where they are most needed," she said. "Councils will still have to decide how to meet their legal duties towards children and young people with special educational needs.
"The new system will still give special schools enough money to ensure they have stability."
A FAIR SHARE?
Overall funding for special schools will remain the same once the overhaul takes place next month - but it will be distributed differently.
For the first time, special schools will receive base funding of #163;10,000 per place; pupil referral units will receive #163;8,000. If the cost of educating a student will exceed the base funding, schools will have to negotiate top-up funding from local authorities. Supporting students with profound needs can cost tens of thousands of pounds a year.