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Kent County Council funding for Special Educational Needs pupils has reached £103m deficit, the worst in country


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The director for education at Kent County Council (KCC) has described the county's special educational needs (SEN) system as a “bottomless pit".

Data collected by The Bureau for Investigative Journalism has found that KCC's deficit for such provisions has reached £103m – in cash terms, the largest in the country - and it will take five years for the authority to break even again.

The SEN system in Kent has been described as a "bottomless pit"
The SEN system in Kent has been described as a "bottomless pit"

The huge shortfall has been attributed to expensive transport taking children miles away from home and an alleged broken tribunal system for failed Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) applications.

The investigation has found the main problem is the fact that funding has failed to keep up with demand for EHCPs and SEN school places - of 260,824 pupils in Kent, 19,500 had an EHCP in 2021.

This has created a fast-growing financial black hole at the heart of the system and the shortfall in England hit £1.3bn in March – an increase of more than £450m in the past year alone, but Kent's financial position has been found to be the worst in the country.

Currently in Kent 1,199 pupils have been placed in schools in a different local authority by Kent County Council - although 598 of those are placed under Medway Council.

A total of 145 travel to East Sussex and 183 are placed in Bromley and Bexley.

However, 28 travel to Kennington and Chelsea and 16 attend specialist schools in Brighton and Hove - a small number of children are travelling as far as North Yorkshire and the Isle of Wight to receive a suitable education for their specific needs.

On the other hand, 845 pupils from outside the county have been given places at schools in Kent.

KCC's special educational needs and disabilities director, Mark Walker, says parents have lost faith in the ability of Kent’s mainstream schools to meet their children’s needs.

The council therefore receives a high proportion of EHCP applications from parents who "want places at expensive independent schools".

Mr Walker blames the tribunal system, which hears appeals against local authority decisions, for helping parents get their way.

But with the government piling on the pressure to bring spending down, councils are being forced to plan even more cost-cutting measures.

Currently, KCC turn down more than 25% of requests for EHCPs but the independent tribunals will rule in favour of the parents 96% of the time.

Mr Walker explained how this has a huge impact on the council's financial position.

He said: “We would probably say that the tribunal system itself is something that needs to be looked at because you cannot have a tribunal system where most tribunal's results come down on the side of parents, that's a bit like the Japanese legal system."

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Mr Walker also added that a part of the problem in Kent is the high proportion of EHCP requests coming from parents rather than teachers.

He said parents in Kent are believing a “myth”, spread on social media, that “if you get an EHCP you get what you want", even if the child's needs are being met in mainstream education.

"All these factors ultimately mean that this budget is spiralling, getting higher and higher all the time," he added.

Giving the example of dyslexia, he explained that the council had a highly-trained speech and language service, and an educational psychology department which specialises in the condition.

Yet parents' tribunals were deciding that dyslexic children needed to go to Frewen College, a specialist independent school in East Sussex which costs upwards of £6,269 a term - although back in 2020 the school threatened Kent County Council with legal action after KCC failed to fund the children placed there.

Frewen College in East Sussex. Picture: Frewen College
Frewen College in East Sussex. Picture: Frewen College

Mr Walker admitted the reason why parents are choosing independent options outside of Kent was because they don’t have faith in schools here.

He said: “Frewen also have a position that they have, which is around, you know 'aren't we great, and this is a fantastic service'.

"I mean, if we look at Frewen College - it looks fantastic. It's a beautiful building, fantastic facilities, they've got a swimming pool there and everything.

"And, you know, as a parent, if I see that - don't get me wrong, I've got five kids - as a parent I want that sort of education for my child but that's different from what was expected within the (SEN) Code of Practice.

“Why in that case, then, are we losing a tribunal for parents that want to go to Frewen College, which is an independent college in East Sussex?"

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Frewen’s principal, Nick Goodman responded to Mr Walker's claims and said these notions of luxury were misguided.

He said: “It is indeed in a lovely setting. It is a not-for-profit charitable trust.

"It does indeed have a swimming pool – outdoor, unheated – and many of our classes are taught in temporary classrooms dating back to the 1980s.

"A look at our accounts will confirm that margins are tight.

"It is not the buildings or the swimming pool that make Frewen College attractive to the parents of students with specific learning difficulties. It is the provision and outcomes.”

Mike Walters, Kent Association of Headteachers
Mike Walters, Kent Association of Headteachers

Mr Walker believes the answer to reducing the deficit is to increase inclusion at mainstream schools but even still, the damage would take years to reverse.

“We need to make sure parents in Kent don’t think they have to get an EHCP in order to get the type of support their son or daughter needs,” he said.

And Mike Walters, the chairman of the Kent Association of Headteachers, thinks the whole system is broken.

Mr Walters said: “We are working within what is largely a broken system. And I don't just mean in Kent, I mean, nationally.

"But the real tragedy of it is there are too many cases where either parents or the child or both feel like no one wants them - none of us want that."

Mum Rebecca Horsley is desperately fighting to find a school place for son Sam
Mum Rebecca Horsley is desperately fighting to find a school place for son Sam

He continued: “I believe the vast majority of children have a good experience, but there are a substantial minority who don’t.

"We collectively as school leaders, recognize that we bear some of the responsibility for that, and also for trying to make it better in the future."

Earlier this week, one worried mum shared how she is currently preparing to take her fight to court after being told no school place could be found for her son who has autism, as his nearby comprehensive school can't cope with his additional needs.

Eleven-year-old Sam Horsley, from Hartley, is due to finish school at Langafel Primary School in Longfield, in September.

KCC has now found him a place at Broomhill Bank School in Tunbridge Wells, which the family has accepted.

But mum Rebecca Horsley, 39, who also works as a teacher, previously complained the authority had not found him a school and had wasted thousands of pounds driving her to challenge them at a tribunal hearing.

Rebecca talks about her son Sam

Sam needs continued speech therapy and a specialist curriculum to keep progressing but the specialist school in New Ash Green in full up - the council approached the local secondary school but they couldn't take Sam on due to his needs.

As well as cases like this, transport for SEN pupils who have managed to secure a place at a specialist school has become a controversial debate in the county for months, with 1,200 special needs children left without transport in Kent in February.

Private taxis can be a massive cost for councils, especially when some children are going to schools miles away from their home.

Christine McInnes, director for education at KCC said: "There are children spending two hours being transported to a special school. To what benefit?

"I’m not saying that should never happen, but it should only happen in extreme cases because actually you’re taking 10 hours a week out of that child’s life when they should be doing after school activities, meeting with friends, and having a life.

Finley, eight, from Meopham, has seen his journey time increased from 15 minutes to 90
Finley, eight, from Meopham, has seen his journey time increased from 15 minutes to 90

"Instead, they’re spending it being transported around," she said.

In recent cases in Kent, parents have accused KCC of "penny pinching" ahead of children's welfare as many were left without access to school in a chaotic shake-up of transport providers.

Mum-of-three Lisa Macnally, from Meopham, has two children with special needs who attend different schools. Her youngest son Finley, eight, is on the autism spectrum and has speech and language delays.

His journey between his home and Dartford Primary Academy used to take 15 minutes each way but under the new transport arrangements his journey now takes 90 minutes each way.

Parents of children with SEN were deeply frustrated by KCC's lack of communication regarding transport changes
Parents of children with SEN were deeply frustrated by KCC's lack of communication regarding transport changes

In March this year, the government published the much-anticipated green paper outlining proposals for the future of SEN provisions with £2.6bn being injected nationally to create new special school places over the next three years.

Councils with deficits have to submit plans to the Department for Education on how they intend to balance their books.

Some authorities will include proposals to amend thresholds for which children are eligible for the education, health and care needs assessment which is the first step towards securing an EHCP.

Further changes could include digitising EHCPs to make the process more straightforward and a drive to promote inclusivity in mainstream schools.

Karen Stone, finance business partner for the children and young people's department at KCC said the increases in grants have been insufficient to cover the increase in spending.

She also said the council's overspend was the result of the amount of money they’re having to spend on independent and specialist placements.

Ms Stone added: "Before the council can even think about addressing its deficit, it will take at least five years for its annual spending to reach a break-even position."

"It's a bottomless pit - where do you draw the line..?"

Director for education, Ms McInnes echoed this thought and added even if the council received all the funding it needed it would still need to make changes.

She described the special needs system as “a bottomless pit - where do you draw the line?".

It was revealed yesterday that KCC will be eligible for safety valve funding to reduce the deficit and chiefs will meet with the Department for Education in May.

The total amount agreed and signed off is due to be announced in September.

So although the government is putting help in place to support councils and relieve the pressure, these reforms could take time to introduce.

Meanwhile, thousands of special needs and disabled children will continue to struggle to access a suitable education.

Kent County Council responded to the above story by saying it was "based on hour-long interview with some of the senior officers within the service and the Chair of the Kent Association of Headteachers".

A spokesman said: “It was a wide-ranging discussion in which we tried to offer insight into the challenges we face in Kent and some of the statements attributed to the senior officers are partial quotes taken out of context.

“We see schools and parents as equal partners and will continue to collaborate with them to make sure children and young people with SEND have every opportunity to do well at school and in life."

He added that while KCC's deficit is currently the largest in cash terms 20 other authorities have a larger percentage of their budget as a deficit.

He added: “There is no disputing that in Kent we have a number of considerable challenges, but we do have a much-improving picture in a number of key areas in our SEND provision and experiences across the county.

“Our timeliness of EHCP assessments is now better than the national average and we do not have an Educational Psychology backlog for a child to have an assessment, during a time of national shortages for EPs.

“Parental satisfaction is running at between 60-70% in feedback surveys, compared with a national situation of 68% feeling their children’s EHCP needs were not being met.

“The SEN service and Parents and Children Together won an award from Healthwatch for their work around listening to the voice of parents and it is unfortunate that the article makes no reference to these improvements."

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