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£1.3m savings to schools budget set to be approved tonight (Monday)

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Schools Forum will determine budget for higher needs block

School services for the most vulnerable are set to be slashed by more than £1m as West Berkshire Council wrestles with a schools budget deficit crisis.

In January, schools across the district were facing a shortfall of £1.9m from the higher needs budget and the council agreed to transfer £848,000 from the mainstream schools budget to offset the deficit.

Now education chiefs will be asked tonight (Monday) to approve a new budget, which aims to curb the latest revised shortfall of just over £1.3m in the higher needs budget for 2016/17.

A report prepared by officers ahead of Monday’s Schools Forum meeting at Shaw House says that “significant” savings needed to be made to balance the books.

Officers said: “All the proposals have implications for schools and their pupils.

“Whether this is removal or reduction of a service currently received for free by schools, or requiring schools to pay for services at a point of delivery, or taking a reduction in income currently received for the provision of additional support to pupils.

“In order to reduce spend to the level of resource being received, these reductions are required.”

Forum members – made up of councillors and headteachers – will be asked next week to vote on cuts to the value of £1.049m to the higher needs budget.

Among the proposals are the reduction by half of the schools equipment budget for special educational needs (SEN) pupils, and the slashing of the therapy services budget by 10 per cent.

Funding towards pupil referral units will also be reduced if measures are approved, a cut which council officers themselves warn will result in PRUs struggling to provide the same level of staffing.

This drop in funding would be off-set by schools whose contribution towards PRUs would increase, which officers said may lead to more permanent exclusions so that schools could avoid paying the added cost to their own personal budget.

The latest shortfall prediction is less than the £3m predicted at a Schools Forum held before Christmas in which council officers blamed increased pupil numbers for the deficit and said it reflected a national picture.

Speaking at the previous Schools Forum meeting, head of education at West Berkshire Council Ian Pearson said: “By talking to colleagues in neighbouring authorities it appears that every other authority is overspending on its higher needs block so maybe there’s something more national going wrong with the system.

“This is not an issue that’s unique to West Berkshire and, in part, is compounded by the way that funding flow works.”

West Berkshire Council spokesperson Peta Stoddart-Crompton blamed the pressure on a rising number of SEN pupils needing more specialised care and a lack of additional government funding.

She said: “Unfortunately, government funding has not kept pace with our current needs, and is based on historical data which is now unrepresentative of West Berkshire’s position.

“The Department for Education have recognised that their allocation arrangements are no longer fit for purpose and have, this week, launched a national consultation on the subject, with the prospect of a new model being implemented from April 2017.

“We will await with interest to see if this new model produces fair funding for West Berkshire.

“Anecdotal discussions with other SE authorities indicate their budgets are equally stretched.”

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