THE special needs budget in West Berkshire is projected to be missing £3.36 million by this time next year.

The high needs block is the money spent on children and young people with special needs and disabilities, and pupil referral units.

But the increasing demand for those services has not met the money available in West Berkshire since 2016.

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Ian Pearson, head of education at West Berkshire Council, said: “Setting a balanced budget for the high needs block continues to be a significant challenge.

“Funding received for this block has only seen minimal increases for several years, yet the demand of high needs pupils and costs of provision has continued to rise.”

He made the comments at a meeting of the schools forum on March 9 — where headteachers, councillors, council staff and others discuss how education is funded.

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The forum decided at that meeting to set a high needs budget that plans to spend £3.36 million than is available, leaving a gap in the budget. Much of that shortfall comes from a predicted overspend this year of £2.74 million, carried over. 

Driving much of these costs are education, health and care plans (EHCPs). These legal documents detail what special needs a child has, such as autism or mental health problems.

Mr Pearson said that both the cost of a single EHCP has gone up, as well as the number of plans. In 2014, 770 children in West Berkshire had EHCPs, while last November, there were 1,026.

Mr Pearson: “Some of our post-16 placements are quite expensive, particularly if they are at independent colleges. So a single placement could cost easily £100,000.”

Keith Harvey, headteacher of St Nicolas C of E Junior School in Newbury, asked whether the deficit could reduce in the near future. Mr Pearson said: “If EHCPs continue to rise, that’s going to be a very difficult magic trick to pull off.”

Questions were also raised about who will pay for the £3.36 million. Reverend Mark Bennet, of the Diocese of Oxford, asked: “How is that being funded? Where does that money come from?”

Melanie Ellis, chief accountant at the council, said it will come from the council’s general funds, as an interest-free loan. 

Because the deficit of the overall budget has risen so much, the government will likely demand this year that the council comes up with a plan to cut costs. 

All councils have to send a deficit recovery plan to the Department for Education, if their deficit is more than one per cent of the total education budget — listing the savings they plan to make to bring the deficit into balance within three years. 

Mr Pearson said the schools forum will likely look at this at the next meeting, in June. He said: “We will need to collectively agree how to respond to the plan.”