£5m school grant overspend poses an ‘enormous financial risk’ to Solihull Council
A £5.6 million overspend on a key education budget in Solihull poses an “enormous financial risk” to the council, one of its most senior officers has warned.
Last week councillors were briefed on the huge pressures facing the “high-needs block” of the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG), which supports pupils with special needs and disabilities.
According to the latest forecasts, this year there is a black hole of £5 million plus on a total budget for the borough of around £24 million.
Cabinet was warned there are still “a lot of unknowns” about how much money would be provided by government next year and it was particularly “disturbing” that demand was only set to increase in future.
A recovery plan, which is designed to tackle the problem, is being developed and set to be approved in February. Key to this strategy will be reducing the number of children being sent outside the borough.
Louise Rees, director of children’s services and skills, admitted the council was facing a “really significant” overspend.
“We knew the pressures that were coming, but what we haven’t been able to do and what 88 per cent of other authorities haven’t been able to do is put measures in place quickly enough to deal with this,” she said.
“If you are looking at bringing children back from expensive placements, that can’t be done willy-nilly, it has to be part of a plan, particularly in education … There are parents who have to be consulted, it has to be the right thing.”
Plans are already in motion to set up a free school specialising in autism in Smith’s Wood. Ms Rees said she would be pushing to bring forward the 2023 opening suggested by the Department for Education (DfE).
She had argued that without the action taken to date, the hole in the budget would in fact have been even greater.
On the current situation, she said: “This is an enormous financial risk facing the council, clearly it is a very, very serious position.
“And I don’t think we have the right resourcing in place to be able to wrap round and tackle this from all the angles it needs to be tackled from.”
This is why she had set out plans to take on six additional members of staff in order to support the recovery plan.
Cllr Ken Meeson, cabinet member for children, education and skills, was at pains to point out the DSG was a grant allocated by the government rather than cash from the council’s own coffers.
“The council can’t just put its hands in its pocket and say ‘okay we’ve overspent, we’ll put that money in’, because this is schools’ money, it’s separate from our own accounts.”
And he echoed officers’ comments that the problem was creating “real difficulties” for town halls across the country.
“The government are very much aware of this, because everybody keeps shouting at them about it.
“They have put some money in, but whether that is going to make much difference … it will help in the present time, but this is going to be a problem that is going to increase over the years.”
Amid growing concern about the impact of austerity on education budgets, ministers have promised further investment.
Last week, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had visited Solihull’s own Dorridge Primary to discuss plans for a “£175 million cash boost” for West Midlands schools.
Read more: https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/5m-school-grant-overspend-poses-17083703