'£34m overspend if we do nothing': Council chiefs talk of need for action for children with special needs

Councillor Lisa Evans, Stockton Council's deputy leader and cabinet member for children and young people
-Credit: (Image: Teesside Live)

School heads have been hailed for their efforts to help children with special needs as council chiefs toil to avoid a financial overspend of almost £35m.

Stockton Council is looking at how to deliver extra places for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), who would otherwise have to go into independent placements. The costs of such placements have been described to leaders as "unbelievable", as high as £90,000 per child per year.

According to a council report, some school leaders have now agreed to "either expand existing provision or look at some capital works to create new spaces". They are looking into "creative ways of supporting groups of children with high needs funding".

Head of education Eddie Huntington told leaders at a cabinet meeting: "In terms of the increasing needs of our children in Stockton, they have gone through the roof, as they have in many other authorities. Our SEND funding is above what we can afford."

He said they were looking at "saving the pennies to save the pounds" and they went to schools and colleges for help: "We need our children in Stockton to stay in local provision, not get taxis, to be with their peers, to not go to very expensive independent provision, which now locally are charging £90,000 per child per year, which is unbelievable.

"It's unpalatable at a time when the budgets are stretched, but if you don't invest to save, we're looking at... perhaps £34.8m or maybe more overspend by doing nothing. So this is something we have to do, it's agreed by the DfE.

"I come from a point of view of child first, their needs first. We just have to provide in spite of these increasing challenges we have around the corner.

'Swift and innovative'

"There are lots of solutions and there are lots of people who are willing to help. And there's an urgency to this now. I think we have been swift and we have been innovative and we are creating the right solutions to help these children to move forward with dignity."

The area has 2,048 children and young people with education and health care plans, a rise of 41% from 2019 in line with other councils. This is predicted to rise to 2,564 by January 2027, and the council has a £1m government grant to carry out a "Delivering Better Value plan" until 2028.

Cllr Lisa Evans, cabinet member for children and young people, said they wanted to bring children from outside Stockton into trusted schools in the borough. She said: "Yes, we've got challenges in our budgets, we've got challenges in children's services. These are people, these are children, it's their future we're talking about.

"And shipping them in taxis outside of the borough is not an option while I'm cabinet member. We have provision in the borough who are willing to step up and take these children.

'This is the right thing to do'

"We said to our partners from our schools, 'We need you to step up, we need you to provide these places for our children with special educational needs so that we're not moving them outside the borough to placements that are £90k+.'

"Forget the money - the outcomes for those children in those placements are not good. We have some fabulous schools. Every single head or CEO in that meeting put their hand up and said, 'This is what I'm willing to do for Stockton.'

"To me this is the right outcome for our children. It isn't just financial. We do what we do for children in the borough and no other reason, and this is the right thing to do. We will do everything we can to make this work."

Council leader Cllr Bob Cook said: "I think it's something we need to do. It's vital that we get these children back and educated in Stockton, and not having to send them out of the borough to other places."

They referred to examples such as a unit at Billingham South Primary School, recently rated outstanding, specialist secondary school Abbey Hill Academy and a "satellite site" at Ash Trees Academy.

Cllr Evans said with some schools lacking places, "having these satellite sites is the best thing for the children, both with SEND and those in mainstream. It makes them more accepting and more inclusive. This is putting our children into mainstream schools where they can have an inclusive education."

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