Special needs schools face cost over-run

Some elements of the schools budget in Lancashire are under particular pressure, a cabinet meeting heard.
Some elements of the schools budget in Lancashire are under particular pressure, a cabinet meeting heard.

The leader of Lancashire County Council says the area’s schools need more funding - and that he will be trying to persuade the government to provide it.

Geoff Driver was speaking at a meeting of the Conservative-run authority’s cabinet, at which the budget for schools was set for the forthcoming financial year.

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“I think it’s fair to say that Lancashire schools are perhaps in a better position than a lot of schools in other parts of the country - but it’s absolutely clear that we need more resources.

“As it happens, I have a meeting [imminently] with a government minister and that is one of the points I shall be pressing,” he said.

Lancashire will receive a total schools grant of £947m for 2019/20, an increase of £28m on the previous twelve months. However, a report to cabinet members concluded that a ”significant element “ of the extra money was simply due to an increase in the number of pupils.

There has also been a national £200 increase in the minimum level of cash paid for each primary and secondary school pupil, which rises to £3,500 and £4,800 respectively.

But cabinet heard that the increases will “not necessarily be sufficient to meet the extra cost pressures...meaning that, in real terms, the sector will continue to face a challenging financial environment”.

In Lancashire, the funding squeeze is most keenly felt in that part of the budget reserved for so-called “high needs” pupils - covering special schools, as well resources for special educational needs in mainstream settings.

The report states that the special needs sector is under “considerable financial strain” in the county.

Lancashire County Council has taken part in a nationwide project to try to determine the root cause of the cost pressures. But Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali requested - and received - an assurance from cabinet member for schools, Susie Charles, that the authority would also write to government about the situation.

The high needs element of Lancashire’s schools budget has a shortfall of £10m during 2019/20. The area has received an extra £2.6m from government in a one-off grant, but is having to find the rest from other parts of the schools budget and a savings programme.

Meanwhile, early years funding for nursery schools is also facing pressure as a result of an increase in the national minimum wage from April. The cabinet report said that some parts of the nursery sector in the county were becoming unsustainable and had reached "a tipping point".

Elsewhere, the government has indicated that it will cover the cost difference between this year's pay rise for teachers of up to 3.5 percent and the one percent which they would have received under the previous public sector pay cap. However, wage increases for support staff - which can reach over 9 percent for the lowest paid workers - will not be funded, the cabinet was told.

Overall, the county’s schools budget reserve stands at £14.4m - but £6m was taken out of it in the twelve months to March 2018.