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SEND fund change will have ‘extreme impact’, Norfolk MATs warn

Trusts are warning they face having to make “significant redundancies” and have no choice but to exclude vulnerable children following shock cuts to SEND budgets in the middle of the year.

MATs have written to Norfolk County Council in a last-ditch bid to avoid a funding “cliff edge”, after learning last week how officials’ revised approach to top-up funding will impact them.

Schools Week revealed in January that the cash-strapped authority was not on track to meet its government “safety valve” agreement, which saw it receive £70 million to balance its high needs deficit.

It was told to submit revised plans and join an “enhanced monitoring” scheme, furthering campaigners’ concerns over the bailouts, which come with strict cost-cutting demands but aren’t enough to move councils into the black.

But the council has adjusted overall top-up funding allocations for each school over the next two terms to ensure they remain within its £35 million budget.

This means the allocations will fall below those received since April.

‘Our entire SEND programme at risk’

The council acknowledged “this will create some challenges for schools”, but said its “entire SEND programme” would be “at risk” if hadn’t made the change.

But the letter co-signed by the bosses of five MATs in the area has revealed their “disappointment and shock” over the altered budget, as they fear it will come with “huge costs”. 

“Against an already very tight financial picture this will result in significant redundancies across schools in Norfolk,” the missive said.

“The effect on children will be negative in the extreme and will result in a significant spike in exclusions across the county, as schools will have a hugely reduced ability to keep specifically funded children safe or able to learn.”

Of the five MATs, the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust is expected to be the worst hit. Its projections suggest that it will see a 48 per cent reduction to top-up payments in 2024-25, equating to about £1 million.

Meanwhile, three of the other signatories – St Benet’s Multi Academy Trust, St John the Baptist Catholic Multi Academy Trust and Broad Horizons – forecast cuts of between 21 and 30 per cent.

Synergy, which was also named in the letter, has not yet confirmed its figures.

Change will have ‘huge costs for kids’

The letter added: “This comes with huge costs, both for the children and to the LA, who will, ultimately, have to educate children that have been excluded.

“The alternative to increased exclusions would be that other children’s experience of school is extremely negatively impacted, along with that of our staff who will be under increased pressure.”

A Norfolk spokesperson said there has been a “significant increase” in top-up funding for mainstream schools, which has seen it grow from about £9 million in 2020-21 to £35 million this year.

It has been “working with schools to look at how we can provide top-up funding for the remainder of [2024-25]…and have decided to set the budget at £35 million”.

The figure is said to be similar to the amount allocated in 2023-24, which recorded a £12 million overspend.

The authority is “having to make this change in-year and absolutely recognises that this will create some challenges for schools”.

But the trusts believe this effectively caps funding, leaving them significantly smaller allocations.

Trust budgets ‘blown out of water’

They argue that the timing of the announcement leaves them with “no ability to plan to ‘do different’”.

Even though redundancies are their “only option to achieve a balanced budget”, many affected staff “will have notice periods of up to 12 weeks”. They will therefore remain employed by the beginning of the new term in September.

The trusts are urging the council to “meet with us to engage in meaningful discussion on this matter and to avoid the cliff edge which has been created through this announcement”.

Diocese of Norwich CEO Oliver Burwood added that he’s been “planning our budgets for months and this blows it out of the water”.

Responding to the leaders’ concerns, the council spokesperson said: “We have no choice but to make changes, otherwise our entire SEND programme will be at significant risk.

“The county council is underwriting the current substantial overspend on the high needs block and is committed to a major multi-year programme of change to support children with SEN within the overall financial envelope.”

They stressed the council “will support schools to plan for this and to ensure that specific plans for children are not affected”.

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