To update the Forum in respect of the current forecast for the 2020-21 High Needs Block budget, including the outcomes from the recent consultation with schools to gather views on transferring up to 0.5% of the Schools Block income to the High Needs Block budget.
The Forum considered a report which provided an update in respect of the current forecast for the 2020-21 High Needs Block (HNB) budget, including the outcomes from the recent consultation with schools to gather views on transferring up to 0.5% of the Schools Block (SB) income to the HNB budget.
Forecast for the 2020-21 HNB budget
Paul Clark explained that Bracknell Forest was in a position of financial pressure which had mainly arisen due to significant increases in the numbers of pupils requiring support, increases in complexity of need, and annual increases in the cost of provision above the level of inflation. Bracknell Forest had a steeper increase than the national figure in the number of children receiving additional support through Education Health Care Plans. Furthermore, there was increasing use of more expensive placements outside Bracknell Forest.
The medium-term financial forecast was summarised in Table 1 of the report and showed an anticipated overspend of £2.408m for 2019-20 (£0.777m if offset against the forecast Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) reserve of £1.631m) with a cumulative overspend of £10.924m over three years.
Kashif Nawaz then highlighted the work that had been completed to date to develop a balanced medium-term budget with a focus on developing a range of quality services at reduced costs. This work had focused on the general themes of outcomes from the High Needs Block Sub Group and were highlighted in 6.18 and 6.19 of the report. It was confirmed there had been robust discussions prior to this meeting, identifying priorities and beginning to unpick where cost savings could be made, services developed and where historically we could have done better. It was acknowledged that there were longer-term challenges but there was a willingness to work with the recommendations. The Forum expressed a desire for flexibility to adapt the plan if things don’t work.
The Forum questioned whether the recommendations were likely to lead to a significant reduction in cost. 6.18 outlined a far more robust and graduated approach and identified a range of resources available to commission in an efficient way. Table 3 of the report summarised the financial impact of the proposals and deducting cost reductions the deficit would be reduced by £7m to £3m which would be a significant reduction in the deficit.
Relating to 6.18.2 of the report, the Forum queried how the demand of Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs) could be reduced. Kashif Nawaz explained that there had been an escalation in numbers of children going from SEN support to EHCPs. Research suggested that a broader graduated approach could reduce need of EHCP where needs could be met in mainstream schools. A systematic pragmatic approach was needed as opposed to decisions being made on an ad hoc basis. For example, several children with EHCPs in year 11 had been placed out of borough but transition planning meant they could be brought back to be educated within the borough.
Relating to 6.19.4 of the report (setting out new in-school SEND resource provisions), the Forum questioned how much money was covered in this and if the plans had been published. Kashif Nawaz advised that all schools had received details of the scheme and been invited to submit a bid with the individual project plans identifying the proposal which varied across the schools. Over the first two rounds of applications, four schools (Harmans Water Primary, Fox Hill Primary, Jennetts Park Primary and Brakenhale Academy), the Parent Carer Forum, and Community Learning were successful in bidding for funding for the DfE Special Provisions Capital Fund (SPCF), which would provide a total of up to 85 places. The third phase was expected to commence in the Spring term and guidance on how to apply would go out to all schools. £250,000 would be available.
Relating to 6.19.5 the Forum was advised that, whilst the DfE rejected the bid for funding for a new Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) Special free School, the council was continuing with plans for a new in-house provision and had received interest from providers in other LAs to collaborate with the council on this.
The Forum queried whether there was additional finance to upscale SEN Hub in line with demand. Kashif Nawaz explained that the team was working with finance to maintain oversight of what was needed. The SEN HUB was funded by the HNB reserves and there were sufficient funds to cover the cost for a couple of years. The team was working to provide better analysis to demonstrate demand and it was expected that after that time the team would be in a good position to demonstrate ongoing need. The Forum expressed a need for sufficient levels of staffing and expertise for a responsive service.
The Forum queried whether there could be further savings which hadn’t yet been identified. Kashif Nawaz advised that there was potential for saving in post 16 if effective processes were in place. The Forum noted that transport savings, whilst not having a direct impact on the HNB budget as it did not come out of that budget, would help other local issues which in turn would have an impact on the HNB budget.
The Forum questioned whether any capital requirements had been considered. It was advised that the possibility of increasing capacity at College Hall, which had been raised previously, would be picked up as part of capital bids.
The Forum acknowledged that each of the strands of the strategy needed further work to be explored more fully and that many figures would change over the course of the on-going work.
Consultation with schools to transfer 0.5% to HNB budgets
A consultation was undertaken with schools to gather views on transferring up to 0.5% of SB funding to the HNB, which reflected the financial pressure outlined above. There was a 61% response rate and 74% of respondents were opposed to the proposed transfer. A key reason cited for opposing the transfer related to affordability and the financial pressures schools were facing.
The Forum was advised to consider the longer-term strategic need of having to balance the HNB budget in light of a forecast significant funding gap. It was also highlighted that the consultation document had been issued in advance of the announcement from the government on the School Budget Spending review which was now considered to deliver average increases in per pupil funding of 5.9% after taking account of the funding transfer. The next steps would be influenced by the views expressed and decisions taken by the Forum. If the Forum could not agree the proposed transfer, the Executive Member could consider an appeal to the Secretary of State.
The Forum questioned whether this was the main proposal to reduce the £3m gap. Paul Clark advised that this was the case.
The Forum were reluctant to vote against the consensus of the consultation. The Forum also expressed that it was difficult to agree to something which did not appear to be concrete. However, Paul Clark explained that the proposal had been brought at this time as the transfer would need to be made by 28 November 2019 as set by the DfE.
RESOLVED to AGREE:
1. the developments to future service delivery (paragraph 6.19 and Annex 5); and
2. that further work is undertaken to identify additional projects to work towards a balanced medium-term financial plan.
The Forum did not agree the proposal of a 0.5% funding transfer from the 2020-21 SB to the HNB budget, estimated at £0.375m. The Forum accepted to take the consequences of this. Councillor Barnard confirmed that he would not sanction an appeal to the Secretary of State on the basis that he believed the responsibility and ability to come up with a solution rested with the Forum.
The Forum expressed thanks to the people involved in producing the report and the recommendations.