MILLIONS of pounds of mainstream school funding will be reallocated to prop up special needs education in Essex, the Gazette can reveal.

A total of £4.3 million of schools’ block funding - the highest amount to date - will be shifted in the next academic year to support young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The bid was taken to the top, to the Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds, when Essex County Council failed to receive unanimous approval from the Essex Schools’ Forum.

A headteacher who voted in favour of the transfer said disapproving members felt it was “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

But the struggling local authority claims the Government’s formula used to allocate funds does not cater to the increased numbers of pupils with special educational needs.


A spokesman for Essex Council said: “The transfers were made due to the increasing demand in high needs places. Since 2018/19 the schools’ block became ring-fenced but local authorities may ask their Schools’ Forum to transfer up to 0.5 per cent.

“The £4.3 million will be transferred back to the schools’ block in 2020/21.”

This is the fourth year since 2015/16 the county council has had to shift money from its mainstream budget which peaked at £838 million this year.

The special educational needs budget has ranged between 14 and 17 per cent of the mainstream amount.

An investigation by the Tes and an earlier Freedom of Information request revealed £1.6 million was permanently reallocated for three consecutive years.

A Schools’ Forum report, shared with the Gazette, argues for the pending transfer and illustrates what led to a £6 million-plus overspend in recent years.

  • In 2015/16, the transfer helped alleviate “pressure created from the incremental growth of 197 places in Essex special schools”. It prevented extra money being spent by pupils going into more expensive independent school provision.
  • In 2016/17, post-16 further education places rose from 123 to 475 and £3 million was moved to the Early Years block due to uncertain funding.
  • Special educational needs places then increased again across the board.

The spokesman said: “The Secretary of State announced additional funding for 2018/19 and 2019/20, which is an additional £3.4 million each year, but there is still an £8.8 million pressure.

"The £4.3 million transfer reduces this.”

The same report says in Essex, 3.8 per cent of pupils have an Education, Health and Care Plan, which determines their level of need and how to meet it, compared to the England average of 2.9 per cent.

The cost of these plans are also rising and so is the price of pupils being educated in special schools in other local authorities.

The number of autistic pupils is up by 49 per cent since 2015.

These factors, and more, are putting a significant strain on funds but also divided the forum – a body of 28 professionals representing the education sector - last November.


Gary Smith, headteacher of Market Field School for youngsters with special needs, has since left the forum.

Its opposition to borrowing the money was a “significant contributory factor”.

He said: “The high needs block is aimed at helping the most vulnerable in our county, and I know for a fact Thurrock Council approved 1.6 per cent to be moved which is three-times what Essex wanted, so I was quite upset by that because I felt the Schools’ Forum was making a political statement.

“My understanding is they’re saying the Government is giving us insufficient funds so taking money from the mainstream to high needs block is robbing Peter to pay Paul so their statement is saying we need more.

“But I don’t think that should be to the detriment of children who have special needs.


Gary Smith and pupils cheer at a new building for Market Field School in Elmstead Market

“It’s a problem, but we’re taking about some of the most vulnerable people in our society so if don’t invest now, it will cost everyone more money in the long-run.

“At the moment, Market Field is doing OK but most schools have some form of reserves so we’re using ours to subsidise the budget.

“It’s not sustainable but you do what you have to do.”

“My school has breathing space so I’m not fighting my corner, it’s about all the other special schools which may not be in the same position as ours.”

Richard Potter, headteacher at Home Farm Primary, was also at the meeting, and is one of the teaching professionals backing MP Will Quince’s call for an inquiry into school spending.


Richard Potter (centre) at an Act of Kindness Day held at Home Farm

He said: “The initial vote to not transfer money to the High Needs block was to send a message to the Department for Education that it’s not funding high needs special educational needs enough."

Despite an increase in the Government’s allocation to the High Needs block - having gone from £110.2 million to £139.1 million in 2018/19 - the feeling is, it does not meet demand.

Meanwhile, the numbers of local authority-funded special schools and pupil referral unit (PRU) places will continue to decline as more schools convert to academies.

The Gazette’s analysis shows 340 (20 per cent) and 388 (62 per cent) maintained places have gone in the past six years.

But Essex County Council explained overall places have increased annually.

Schools’ Forum member Miles Bacon, head teacher at Thurstable School, agrees more must be done. He said: “Current Government funding isn’t enough to meet the growing demand for special educational needs provision.

“Funding for schools is insufficient to allow schools to maintain the quality of education we’ve come to expect, let alone the additional demands of attempting to fill gaps and cope with issues left by funding cuts to other public services, whilst at the same time playing a key role in meeting the increased demand for mental health support.”