A former head teacher has warned of "a massive crisis" in Kent's schools as funding issues look to force a major shake-up in special needs provision.
Kent County Council (KCC) recently had to be bailed out on its special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) budget by the government.
Whitehall has said it will pick up £140m of its £147m overspend but told the authority it must bring its budgets into line quickly and ordered a major shake-up of where children with SEND are taught.
It will mean it will be far harder for parents to secure a special school place and that many more children with a number of conditions will, instead, be put into mainstream schools.
And while KCC – which was slammed in a recent report by Ofsted for its SEND provision - is vowing those services will be protected from cuts, there is no option open to the authority other than dramatically reducing its spending to prevent the debt from growing, in line with the government’s conditions.
Key to that will be a reduction in the number of pupils securing a place at a private special school - paid for by the taxpayer. These cost the authority, on average, almost £47,000 a year per pupil.
For the 2022-23 year, KCC was paying out £68m in such fees - up a remarkable 70% on the £40m spent during 2019-20.
Places for children at its own special schools cost around £22,800 per child in 2022-23. But the savings are laid bare when compared to the cost of a pupil receiving SEN support at a state school, which is just £10,414.
KCC recently reached a 'safety valve agreement' with the government to help combat its overspend.
As part of the rescue package, KCC must usher in reforms which will "ensure only the most severe and complex needs are supported in special schools," with others reintegrated into mainstream schools, if their needs can be met.
Financially, it must also "control and reduce the cumulative deficit over the next five years". To assist this, the authority will be "contributing a further £82m". KCC insists this money will be paid over the five-year term of the agreement and will be built into its “medium-term financial plans”.
It is also shifting £10m out of its central schools budget to assist with SEN support in mainstream schools.
Peter Read, who was head at Gravesend Grammar for 15 years before running an advisory service for families facing problems with the education service, said: "KCC has basically got to rip up its current offering.
"Lots more children are going to have to go into mainstream schools; special schools are going to be cut down and it will be difficult to get into one, and the government says, very precisely, that KCC has got to take people out of special schools and private schools into the mainstream.
"Schools with vacancies are going to feel it worst because strong academies can be very resistant to taking on children.
"All of this will trigger a massive crisis in a system which has already lost the trust of parents."
KCC's SEND provision was slammed in a joint Ofsted and Care Quality Commission (CQC) report in 2019 which identified "significant areas of weakness". A follow-up inspection in September last year found it had "not made sufficient progress in addressing any of the significant weaknesses".
The damning report added: "Parental confidence in the local area’s ability to meet their children’s needs is at an all-time low. In 2019, parents were said to be ‘upset, angry and concerned’. In September 2022, almost 2,000 parents of children with special needs took the time to share their views with inspectors. Representing the views of many, one aggrieved parent stated: ‘Communication is poor; co-production is non-existent… It feels as though my son’s needs are not being prioritised, and they don’t care. They are incompetent.’."
It prompted a public apology from the leader of KCC, Roger Gough, last November.
Then, earlier this month, KCC was ordered by the government to improve its SEND provision after it was issued with what is known as an 'improvement notice'.
If, by May 12, the government is not satisfied, it has warned it may step in to take direct control of the services.
KCC has recently successfully bid for funding for two new special schools - one in Whitstable and another in Swanley. A bid for Sheppey was turned down.
But, Peter Read says that fails to address a key issue raised by the Department for Education (DfE) as part of its financial assistance.
He explains: "The argument has to be, and the safety valve says it, that children have to go back to mainstream schools. So how do you get them back there by opening up new special schools? It doesn't actually address anything."
What will concern parents of children with special needs will be just how the authority handles their bid for what is known as an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP).
An EHCP is applied for by parents for children for whom regular SEN support within a mainstream school is considered insufficient. It will include a recommendation as to which school they will be best suited, mainstream or special.
If there is a dispute between the EHCP recommendation and the parents' opinion, they can take it to mediation or, failing that, a tribunal.
“There has also been an increase in applications for EHCPs and additional support in local schools, a situation exacerbated by the impact of Covid lockdowns...”
Mr Read says KCC has failed to challenge these in recent years, which has fuelled the growth in private school places being awarded. As of March 2021, according to figures obtained by Mr Read, there were more than 5,000 children with EHCPs in the authority's schools. In addition, some 1,300 were in private schools either in or outside Kent with the fees being paid for by the local authority. Travel costs are also often picked up by the council.
Part of the safety valve agreement calls on KCC to "review the system of EHCP assessments and annual reviews to ensure robustness, transparency and consistency".
Mr Read added: "The safety valve says we have to trim down the number of EHCPs; we have to force more children into mainstream; we have to reduce the number going to to maintained special schools to only those with the 'most severe and complex' conditions. I always assumed that was the case. The government is saying KCC is letting pupils without 'severe and complex' needs into special and private schools.
"In broad brush stroke terms, parents fear if their child goes to a mainstream school they won't get support and they will be lost in the system. And, like all parents, they want the best for their child and you can't argue with that.
"A lot of parents, however, don't want them to go to a special school because they will be classified as 'special'. A private special school, on the other hand, has status and the best facilities.
"This leaves a conundrum – how to reduce the overspend by removing pupils from private special schools, when they have an EHCP to justify their place?"
However, KCC says the safety valve agreement will not see a wholesale changing of children with EHCPs out of state or private special schools – but admits some will.
A spokesman for the authority said: “EHCPs are reviewed on an annual basis and in some circumstances it may be appropriate, as part of that review, to consider whether the needs of pupils could be better met within internal provision.
“For example, we have worked with some parents and carers of post-16 pupils who have expressed a wish to move away from out-of-county, residential provision to nearer, alternative college provision that provides a better opportunity for independent living and preparing for adulthood.
“However, the overall plan is to reduce future reliance on independent provision by building capacity and capability within the county. KCC has been successful in two bids to the DfE for additional special school provision and is working with the DfE on further details.
“By building additional capacity in special and mainstream schools within Kent, we aim to ensure that the needs of more SEND pupils can be equally met within Kent.
“We are working with schools and settings to support this ambition by providing access to further training and development and supporting them with techniques and resources they can use in class to be able to better support children and young people with SEND.”
Kent is far from alone in overspending on its SEND budget.
The DfE has recently issued 20 'safety valve' agreements to authorities across the nation - including Medway which will see £14.3m picked up by Whitehall. In total, the package of support it has been forced to offer totals nearly £1 billion.
But Kent, as one of the larger councils, has the biggest bail-out package to date.
All of this will trigger a massive crisis in a system which has already lost the trust of parents.
A KCC spokesman added: “The pressure on Kent’s High Needs Block arises mostly from the large increases in the use of specialist schools and the individual packages of top-up funding for children with SEND in mainstream schools.
“There has also been an increase in applications for EHCPs and additional support in local schools, a situation exacerbated by the impact of Covid lockdowns. At a national level, the introduction of EHCPs and associated changes to SEND services has not been adequately funded by central government, and the majority of local authorities have overspends in this area.
“The safety valve process is entirely voluntary. Local authorities are not bound to commit to it and DfE does not have to accept any offer from local authorities. KCC was invited to apply. Discussions began in April 2022.
“If the council is off-track in bringing the deficit down then the agreement states that DfE may pause, or ultimately stop, any further payments. A failure to bring the deficit down would then only result in poorer quality services to Kent pupils with SEND and greater financial pressure on all of council’s other services. That is why KCC is committed to bringing the deficit down to zero by 2027/28.”