Teaching and support jobs could go and hundreds of children will lose their promises of special educational help after the near-collapse of a controversial budgeting system in East Sussex.
Schools have only just learned of a massive 820 per cent overspend in the council's system for funding statements of special educational need.
Next year, they will get just Pounds 600 per statement, leaving schools with high levels of need in potential trouble There will be a "dramatic" impact, according to John Kenward, head of Bourne county primary school in Eastbourne and a member of the National Association of Headteachers' national council: "There will be less money to support special needs. And the loss of teaching jobs is bound to be a result of less money. Difficult choices will have to be made."
East Sussex has incurred bitter criticism and numerous legal challenges from special needs lobbyists who say its cost-driven approach, which is designed to limit the number of formal statements of special educational need, is against the law.
Nonetheless similar systems imposing tight budget limits are gaining popularity and it is believed that Government officials have been hoping they will hold down the escalating cost of special needs.
East Sussex has delegated most of its special needs money to schools, along with the responsibilities. On top of that it was willing to pay Pounds 2,000 per statement - the promise of extra help for seriously affected children - in the three most common categories: behavioural, moderate learning and specific learning difficulties (dyslexia).
But having budgeted for only 100 statements by January 1996, East Sussex found itself with 920 - a notional overspend of Pounds 1.64 million. The county has met part of the cost but must find Pounds 50,000 savings from this year's (199697) budget.
Avril Atkinson, assistant county education officer, said there were "transitional problems" but that the system was the right one. She said there has been no cut in the overall budget for special needs, just a re-allocation of the funds within it. Schools, she said, would need time to adjust to meeting needs from their own budgets.
John Kenward blamed East Sussex for failing to be clear about its system. "We supported delegation on the assumption that prevention is better than cure. However, the fact that the estimates are widely out displays a lack of understanding of the whole picture." The county had failed to give schools the detail they needed to calculate their spending correctly.