A MARKED rise in the number of children with special educational needs in Northumberland is putting huge pressure on the system – and could lead to some “unpalatable” decisions.

Data from Northumberland County Council showed that the number of children requiring an education and healthcare plan (EHCP) rose from 1,679 in 2017 to 3,369 in 2023 – an increase of 100.6 per cent in just six years.

The issue is reflected nationally – since 2015 the number of children and young people with an EHCP has increased by 97 per cent across the country.

The council reacted by producing its first-ever SEND forward plan in November last year, which looks ahead to the next five years. The local authority’s cabinet member for children’s services, Guy Renner Thompson, explained the situation.

He said: “It is mainly an increase in pupils with ASD and social and emotional issues. The number of pupils with physical needs is static. Asking why, no-one really knows.

“My feeling is a lot of it is Covid-related. You can’t underestimate the impact of someone being away from their social group when they’re so young and still developing.

“The debate is whether this is a temporary impact or whether it is here to stay. We won’t know for five to ten years.

“There is also a theory that diagnosis of these types of issues is just better. Before, a child would be seen as a bit naughty, but now they can get a diagnosis, they can get more funding to help them.

“The numbers increased quicker during Covid, but they were also increasing before, albeit at a slower rate.

“For the majority, the best place is in a mainstream school, but you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. We’re doing what we’re doing, including building new special schools across the county."

In schools, staff are facing significant challenges as they face “dysregulated” children and young people. This is where a person is unable to regulate their own emotional response due to being overwhelmed by their environment, and can manifest as a meltdown or a shutdown.

Dysregulation is most commonly experienced by those with sensory processing differences, and those who have difficulty with anxiety. In turn, these issues are more common in individuals with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and ADHD, as well as other neurodivergent issues and other special educational needs.

The issue was raised at the most recent meeting of the county council’s Schools Forum.

Executive headteacher of Hexham Middle School and Queen Elizabeth High School Graeme Atkins believed years of austerity as well as the coronavirus crisis were having an impact.

He said: “We have young people that are so dysregulated that we are struggling to keep them in mainstream and in embryonic alternative provision. Talking to other colleagues, I think schools are working really hard to try and provide for those who are really struggling to meet the expectations of a mainstream school.

“We are trying to be better. Even then, there are some really dysfunctional young people. It is probably a consequence, not just of the pandemic but of austerity measures affecting families when they were toddlers that are now coming through the system.

“Across the schools in Northumberland, there are some really profoundly dysregulated young people that we are just containing. There is a problem that exists now that we are struggling to contain. 

“I can see an uptick in permanent exclusions if we don’t come up with a better overall solution.”

Andrea Mead, the headteacher of Hillcrest specialist school in Cramlington, revealed staff had been injured by pupils.

She said: “In our schools, we are seeing things we have never seen before. There has been an increase in violence towards staff, with several staff members hurt.

“We’re getting things we have never seen before in specialist school in mainstream. Pupils are so complex, it is a real struggle for us.”

Continuing growth in the number of pupils with EHCPs is putting huge pressure on council budgets up and down the country. In Northumberland, the gross expenditure on Children’s  Services took up 30 per cent of the council’s overall budget at £256.78m. A large portion of this is covered with grants from Government, but the council still faces a bill of almost £75m.

The council is facing difficulty in balancing its high-needs budget – the funding provided by local authorities via Government grants to support SEND pupils with the additional resources they need to participate in education and learning. The council has predicted in-year deficit for 2023/24 of £3.15 million, leaving the department with a balance of -£0.8 million thanks to contingency funding.

The outlook for the following year is less positive, however. Modelled on just a 10 per cent growth in the number of EHCPs (this year saw a 27.1 per cent increase), a contribution from the mainstream schools funding block of 0.5 per cent (02.5 per cent this year) and no additional specialist placements, there would be a budget deficit of £5.4 million in year and a -£6.2 million balance.

It is not a unique problem for Northumberland. In September, neighbouring North Tyneside Council was handed almost £20 million from the Government as part of a “Safety Valve” agreement.

However, as part of these agreements, councils are expected to reduce their SEND spending. In September, education publication Schools Week reported that both Kingston and Richmond councils have conditions to “manage demand” for EHCPs as part of their agreements.

At the schools' forum meeting, director of education David Street explained that some measures ordered by the DfE can be “unpalatable” to those in the education sector. These include reducing the growth and cutting EHCPs, specialist demand, and top-up values.

High-needs top-up funding is per-pupil funding provided by the local authority above the £6,000 per pupil annual cost set by the Government. Schools in Northumberland are to be consulted on introducing measures to reduce SEND spend, in the hope of avoiding the DfE coming in and imposing restrictions of its own.

Speaking at the meeting, Mr Street said: “We’re looking for the least-worst option. Some will make you such your teeth a little bit and say that is not appropriate or think it is against statutory practice and/or against the code of conduct.

“The consultation may lead to schools saying ‘don’t do that’ – but we have got a responsibility around managing the budget as a schools forum. It is not great to see the deficit laid out, but it is important that we’re aware of that.

“Obviously there is some discussion, but the DfE does stipulate there are some things that you need to do and we might not think are appropriate and some of them we might think are not in line with statutory guidance or code of practice.

“If the DfE turn up, they might implement all of those measures, or all of them at all the wrong times. We’re trying to avoid that – tough local decisions made by the people that know the ground the best.”

CEO of the Northumberland CoE Academy Trust, Alan Hardie, added: “We need to share this as widely as possible because there are a lot of big decisions we have to make as a school forum. Unpalatable though some of the decisions might be, it is far better we take them ourselves.

“We need to make sure we have heard the right voices, and hope that there is a realisation that the funding is inadequate. We have to hope we receive a more fair level of funding from Government.”

Nationally, the National Education Union has called for an increase in funding for SEND.

Speaking earlier this year, Rosamund McNeil, Assistant General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Since 2015 the number of children and young people with an EHCP has increased by 97 per cent.

“The Department for Education has only increased funding by 65 per cent and that is before seven years of inflation is taken into account. There is now a £3.3 billion gap between funding the DfE provides through the High Needs Block and the cost of restoring the value of an EHCP to its real terms value in 2015-16.”

The Government has defended its funding of schools, arguing that education funding is set to reach almost £60 billion in 2024/25 – its highest-ever level in real terms. The new deal includes additional funding for both disadvantaged pupils and children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), with pupil premium and high-needs budgets both going up alongside mainstream investment.

Earlier this month, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: “Our schools and our teachers are better than ever – and it’s so important that as standards continue to rise, so does our support for schools.

“That’s why boosting school funding was the first thing I did as Education Secretary, and why I will continue to make sure our brilliant schools and teachers have the tools they need to make sure every child receives a world-class education.

“I know costs for schools continue to be high, but ensuring schools are funded at their highest level in history in real terms will give parents and schools the confidence that education continues to be the top for this Government.”