Call for action over SEND funding following legal ruling

By Derren Hayes

| 08 August 2018

Local government leaders are calling for an urgent review of funding for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) after a judicial review blocked a council's plans to impose £7m of budget cuts.

The High Court backed campaigners' objections to proposed cuts to SEND funding in Bristol

The High Court recently ruled that the process used by Bristol City Council to draw up plans to cut SEND support by £7m over the next three years was legally flawed.

The local authority drew up the plans in response to an overspend in its high needs block of funding, which is given to councils by the government to pay for additional support for pupils with SEND. The council said the amount of high needs funding it receives has failed to keep pace with rising numbers of pupils with special needs.

The council proposed making £5.1m of funding cuts in 2018/19, and the remainder over the next two years, with special schools bearing the brunt.

However, through backing from legal aid, campaigners launched a legal challenge claiming that the council had failed to properly consult parents when drawing up the plans.

Not only did the High Court back the parents, but also ruled that the decision to make cuts could have been different if the process had been carried out lawfully.

The ruling states: "There is no evidence, from the extensive paperwork evidencing the defendant's decision-making process, that members of the council had any regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, still less "actively promote" children's welfare, when making the decision to proceed with the proposed savings. Indeed, the decision-making process appears to be driven entirely from the standpoint of ensuring a balanced budget by 2020/21."

The decision could be appealed and the council said it would look at the implications of it before deciding what to do next.

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Bristol deputy mayor Craig Cheney, said: "We want to stand united with local families and schools in highlighting the national funding shortage for SEND and work together with them on a way forward. It always was and remains our intention to work closely with everyone affected wherever required, considering carefully the details of how we might reduce spending and deliver SEND services within the grant given by government.

"The large pressure on our SEND budget is due to increasing demand and complexity of children and young people's needs, but mostly because we do not get enough money from Government in this area. It is clear to all sides that funding needs to be sustainable and along with many other authorities we have written to the government to highlight its lack of appropriate funding."

A Local Government Association spokesperson said: "The government needs to provide significant, ongoing and sustainable funding to help councils manage the rising demand in support from pupils with SEND.

"We have previously warned that unless councils are given the funding to meet this need, they may not be able to meet their statutory duties and children with high needs or disabilities could miss out on a mainstream education.

"This is why we are calling for an urgent review of funding to meet the unprecedented rise in demand that councils are experiencing."

Writing on website Special Needs Jungle, SEND expert Matt Keer said the High Court ruling is "great news" for Bristol families of children with SEND and could have wider implications.

"Bristol isn't the only authority to face a judicial review over its SEND spending decisions - families in Surrey and Hackney have also issued a judicial review against their respective authorities and they will have their cases heard in October," she said.

"The Bristol judgment does not automatically prevent authorities from making cuts to SEND services but it reminds them that they have to put proposals out for proper, lawful consultation and that they must consider whether their SEND services are sufficient."

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