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West Berkshire schools facing funding cuts for vulnerable pupils

Education chiefs to decide on budget tonight

Chris Ord

Reporter:

Chris Ord

Contact:

01635 886639

West Berkshire Council logo

SCHOOL services for the district’s most vulnerable pupils are set to be slashed as West Berkshire Council attempts to balance its education budget.

A budget shortfall of £610,000 is currently forecast in the High Needs Block of funding at the end of this school year – £160,000 more than was forecast in January.

This shortfall is expected to increase to £803,070 by the end of 2017/18.

The Government funding (part of the Designated Schools Grant) is allocated to local authorities to help students of all ages with special educational needs.

However, education chiefs will be asked to approve a savings package of £220,000 on Monday in an effort to reduce spending and bring the budget back on track.

A council report prepared ahead of Monday’s meeting of the Schools Forum – made up of councillors and headteachers – says setting a balanced budget for the High Needs Block of funding is a “challenge”.

In the report, officers say: “Funding received for this block has only seen minimal increases for several years, yet the demand in terms of numbers of high-needs pupils and unit costs of provision has continued to rise.”

The report goes on to state: “Up until 2016/17, West Berkshire was setting a balanced high-needs budget, which included a significant contingency built in.

“2015/16 was the first year that the budget overspent, with the contingency all used up.

“A decision was made to set a deficit budget in 2016/17, firstly because the Government was consulting on reforms to high-needs funding, and secondly to allow the work being carried out on driving costs down to take effect.”

It is now thought a deficit budget over two years will be necessary.

Among the savings proposals are a reduction in funding for specialist schools equipment by half, reducing the Vulnerable Children’s Fund by up to £20,000 and a £40,000 reduction to the Pupil Referral Unit outreach programme.

With these savings, along with continued funding cuts to pupil referral units approved last year, the council hopes that the forecast deficit will be reduced and the budget balanced by 2019/20.

When discussing saving options at the last meeting of the Schools Forum earlier this month, Little Heath School headteacher Dave Ramsden urged caution when considering cuts to the high-needs funding.

He said: “I think the challenge here is working out how deep to make the cuts.”

He added: “You could be removing services that would be harder to replace in the future.”

A final decision on the budget is expected to be made on Monday next week.

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