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SEND bailout councils increasingly ‘monitored’ by ministers

Cash-strapped councils falling behind on their SEND deficit bailout plans – just months after they were signed off – have now been placed under “enhanced” monitoring by ministers, Schools Week can reveal. 

Cambridgeshire and Norfolk signed government “safety valve” agreements in March, where they got £119 million combined in bailouts to help balance their high needs deficits over five and seven years respectively.

But by September, both were already off track, which means they must submit revised plans and join the “enhanced monitoring and support (EMS)” scheme.

News of a higher tier of intervention in the scheme compounds concerns by campaigners that the bailouts, which come with strict cost-cutting demands and which are not enough to balance budgets.

Maxine Webb, an independent councillor in Norfolk, said: “Those of us who warned about the SEND system hinging on the safety valve scheme will rightly be massively worried about the intervention happening so early on in the programme, and its implications.”

Cambridgeshire warned last month it was more than £6 million off-track “as a result of the continuing increase in demand” for services. Norfolk risks wiping its deficit a year later than planned.

DfE won’t say how many councils monitored

The Department for Education said this week the enhanced monitoring scheme includes “additional financial and technical support”.

But it would not confirm how many councils were on EMS, or when it began. But most of the 34 local authorities on the safety valve scheme are on track to reduce their deficits, the spokesperson added.

In a letter to conservative-run Norfolk Council, the DfE said the enhanced monitoring programme was designed “to allow a local authority time to produce an updated or revised dedicated schools grant management plan to get the agreement back on track.”

It comes with “support and challenge” from SEND and financial advisors, but there is “no scope” to negotiate funding attached to the agreement. 

SEND specialist Matt Keer said: “When it comes to financial accountability, these LAs are getting intensely and repeatedly scrutinised.

“But there’s little evidence of the same intense attention being paid to the most important thing: whether these LAs are meeting their statutory duties, and enabling their schools to ensure good outcomes for children and young people with SEND.”

Referrals rise stretches deficit plan

School forum documents for Norfolk state an “unexpected increase” in special school referrals has strained its deficit-reduction plan. Two new free special schools won’t open until 2026.

It is undertaking a “stock-take” and “comprehensive programme refresh which will identify new initiatives and mitigations” to bring the plan back on track,” documents added.

A council spokesperson said: “The fact that the trajectory is having to be refreshed is precisely because we are committed to continuing to meet needs and have, therefore, spent more money in 2023 than originally projected.”

They have “confidence that our revised plan will lead to EMS ending” on March 31.

But Webb added it is likely children and families would “bear the brunt” of any further “mitigations.”

Cambridgeshire, run by a liberal democrat, labour and independent joint administration, warned a delay in DfE-delivered free special school projects is also “significant.” A spokesperson said: “The pressure of demand and inflation means there is a current gap in our position.”

It plans to “reset” its model to balance the budget by 2026-27.

‘DfE will want to impose a plan’

A council spokesperson said they are likely to be “rephasing transformation activities and getting support from DfE experts in early years and special schools. These discussions will also include the timing of opening of DfE delivered free schools.”

Council documents from June revealed Dorset was in discussion with DfE about its safety valve agreement and “collaborating” as part of the EMS programme. 

Meanwhile, South Gloucestershire said they were behind target and DfE “will want to impose a plan on us going forward,” schools forum minutes state.

Schools Week previously reported how safety valve councils have warned that inflation, staffing shortages and construction delays risk undermining the programme.

Meanwhile, the row over Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole’s safety valve negotiations continued this week. More than 2,000 residents have signed a petition calling for a full council vote on any deal.

A packed children’s committee meeting heard from officer Nicola Webb that the 15-year proposal the council has submitted to government, in exchange for a bailout, “doesn’t tackle the deficit currently projected.”

Graham Farrant, BCP chief executive, added they “will not support a proposal that takes the service below the statutory requirements”.

The council will receive feedback on its plan by March.

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