Special school: ‘We’ve got three years before we can’t do our job’

Headteacher Grahame Robson and some of the children of Manor Green
Headteacher Grahame Robson and some of the children of Manor Green

Headteachers at the county’s special schools have warned they face having to make “significant cuts” to tackle a funding shortfall.

Special schools – such as Manor Green Primary and Manor Green College, in Ifield – were not included in the government’s new National Funding Formula, so will not receive any increase in funding the formula may bring.

Manor Green College headteacher Grahame Robson

Manor Green College headteacher Grahame Robson

They will, however, face increased costs while receiving thousands of pounds per pupil less than both London and the national average.

In a letter to parents, the heads said West Sussex received an average of £19,447 per pupil with special educational needs (SEN), compared to an average £23,406 per pupil nationally and an average £30,389 per pupil in London.

The letter added: “These are all government figures, provided by the Department for Education. They show that an average large special school in West Sussex with, say, 200 pupils – perhaps in Worthing, Burgess Hill, Chichester or Crawley – receives nearly £800,000 less than a school in, say, Reading, and over £2m less than a school in outer London. And on top of that, we are still having to make cuts every year of up to £70,000 just to make ends meet.

“This cannot continue.”

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Grahame Robson, head of Manor Green College, said he would be able to balance his budget next year but predicted it would be in deficit the following year.

He added: “At the moment we’ve got three years before we can’t do our job.”

The strain on staffing has already started to show.

With the safety of the children holding top priority at Manor Green, Mr Robson has been forced to send a couple of pupils home because their particularly complex needs put too much strain on the small staffing team qualified to look after them.

And these aren’t just your average teachers – the needs of some of the children require care from NHS-trained staff.

Mr Robson said: “If we don’t quite have the staffing, we can’t guarantee their safety and we have to send them home. I’ve had to do that recently. It’s a horrible conversation to have with parents.”

Without any extra money, the situation seems unlikely to improve. Staffing at Manor Green takes up 89 per cent of the budget – an increase of 5 per cent over the past four years – leaving 11 per cent to cover all other costs.

But if fixed costs such as bills exceed that 11 per cent, staffing suffers and the consequences are felt by the children.

Mr Robson is then left with the option of sending pupils home or asking West Sussex County Council to place them at another school. The double whammy of that decision means the school then loses the funding for those children.

Mr Robson said: “So actually we’re into a spiral.”

High needs funding is allocated by central government to West Sussex County Council, which then distributes the money where needed. In 2017/18, the council received £75.6m and recorded a high needs budget of £78.5m – a shortfall of £2,9m.

Of this, only £28.8m went to special schools.

Some £6m was spent on special support centres in mainstream schools and academies, a further £4.3m went to mainstream schools and academies without special support centres, £18.4m was spent placing children in independent and non-maintained schools, £7.5m was spent on alternative provision, including transport, £5.8m was spent on specialist support, £4.2m went on placements post-16, and £3.5m was spent on other support.

Until this year, money has been transferred from the council’s schools block to the high needs blocks to help cover the shortfall. This year, however, with the 2018/19 budget expected to overspend by £4.3m, headteachers have voted not to do so.

The recommendation to transfer £2m to the high needs budget was rejected by members of the school forum in December, prompting an appeal to the secretary of state by the council.

With the Department for Education indicating it wants to end the practise of moving money from one pot to another, it’s an appeal the council seems unlikely to win.

Mr Robson was one of the heads who voted against the transfer, saying all it achieved was to mask how poorly funded special schools were – as well as putting additional pressure on the already cash-strapped mainstream schools.

He added: “If we just keep on transferring this money, we’re masking the fact that there’s a crisis.

“The schools got to the stage of saying ‘enough’s enough, you’re putting extra pressure on us, which means we can’t manage our responsibilities around SEN and inclusion’.

“It’s simply putting more pressure on special schools, we’re not going to allow it.”

Local authorities appear to be in something of a Catch-22 situation when it comes to high needs funding. The more they give to special schools, the less they can give to all the other special needs projects. Whatever they choose, some of the most vulnerable members of our society lose out.

Mr Robson said he found the whole situation “scary” because “nobody is saying anything that suggests there’s a fundamental understanding of the issue. West Sussex County Council will be right in the firing line when it all goes wrong.”

A council spokesman said: “The leader of the county council, Louise Goldsmith, has met local MPs to inform them about the growth in demand for special educational needs funding to meet the complex needs of our West Sussex children.

“The county council’s own budget is also under pressure as a result of cuts to the government grant and growing demand for support to vulnerable adults and children.”

The spokesman added the council intended to reduce spending over the next two years to save £3m.

She said: “During this we will do everything we can to minimise the impact on the provision of support and on educational outcomes for children and young people with complex needs.”

Mr Robson said: “It makes me feel very disenchanted and disempowered. We’ve worked really hard here over the past seven years to build up what we’re doing, and you feel as though, without the funding to sustain that, it’s going to sort of slide down the other side and we’re always going to have to dismantle some of it.

“We’re already cutting back on what we’re able to offer and what I’m desperate not to do is essentially what mainstream schools are having to do, which is just focus on classroom teaching and learning and lose all of the other additional support.

“Because that’s the stuff that makes special schools the success that they are.”