A PLAN to improve the outcomes for some of the most vulnerable members of a community has been approved, despite concerns it could have a negative impact on school budgets.

Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet passed proposals to overhaul its disabled and special educational needs (SEND) strategy and changes to funding for SEND pupils, as the authority faces a £3m black hole over people aged up to 25 with high needs.

The council’s leaders say the changes will be monitored to ensure there are improvements for SEND pupils and admit they have been forced to undertake the overhaul to stem soaring costs.

Government funding for Darlington’s high needs pupils for the coming year was £12.25m, for which an overspend of £1.4m has been projected. In addition, a £1.6m overspend has been carried forward from last year.

The Northern Echo:

Councillor Cyndi Hughes

The soaring costs are partly due to increasing rates of children being diagnosed as having special needs. The number of pupils given Education, Health and Care Plans rose from 385 in January 2013 to 683 in January 2018.

The funding and strategy changes follow what the authority described as a “thoroughly inclusive public consultation” on the plan, during which concerns were raised over proposed differences in funding for those with higher and lower needs.

Less than one-in-three respondents agreed with the proposal to attach funding levels a range of needs. Parents of some SEND pupils told the council the upper limit of £6,500 would be insufficient to cover the costs of pupils with the highest needs.

However, almost 70 per cent of those who responded to the consultation said the proposed changes would help ensure the funding system was as transparent and fair as possible.

Councillor Sue Richmond told cabinet members in response to the consultation, a higher rate had been added to the banding rates to reflect the need of pupils with profound and multiple learning disabilities in specialist settings. She added in response to concerns over school budgets being hit, transitional funding arrangements had been put in place to top up funding for schools which would lose out the most.

Following the meeting, Councillor Cyndi Hughes, the council’s children and young people portfolio holder, said there was “simply not enough money in the system to meet the growing identified needs”.

She added: “Our new strategy will promote more effective collaboration, co-production and communication with partners so that together, with the involvement of parents and carers and children and young people, we will do the absolute best we can to meet growing demand until increased national funding is a reality.”