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Cheshire East Council has reduced its special needs budget deficit by £10.1m, writes Belinda Ryan.

This means it was about £80m overspent in this area at the end of 2023/24 year instead of the predicted £90m.

The children and families committee was told this shows the council’s dedicated schools grant (DSG) management plan is working.

The plan – which proposes mitigations amounting to £916m by 2030/31 – would result in a predicted in-year surplus of £600k at the end of the seven years, but still leave the council with a total deficit of £284.8m.

Cllr Jos Saunders (Poynton, Con) said: “I’m really pleased that we’ve reduced the deficit, however I think we do still have to acknowledge we have great difficulties.

“The £10m reduction is not a saving that can be used elsewhere, it just means we’ve got a deficit of £80m rather than £90m.”

Cllr Janet Clowes (Wybunbury, Con) asked council officers: “Are you assured you will be able to keep up this momentum for the next six years because that’s the tricky bit?”

The council’s DSG management plan includes – but is not limited to – supporting mainstream schools to adopt inclusive practice so more children and young people to remain in mainstream settings where appropriate, and strengthening the SEN support available in those schools.

The council also plans to expand its own specialist provision.

At present, a significant number of children and young people have to travel to specialist or independent schools outside the borough and this is expensive.

Claire Williamson, director of strong start, family help and integration, told the committee: “We believe that Cheshire East children are best placed to have their education in Cheshire East, we’re absolutely committed to that…

“We’ve been building stronger relationships with our schools.

“We’ve been challenging some of those decisions of our schools where they’ve said they cannot meet the need… and we have been directing some children into those school places in Cheshire East and that’s something that we’ll continue to do for the right decision of those individual children.”

Mrs Williamson acknowledged some children will need specialist places that are not in Cheshire East.

She stressed the plan was about working with parents.

“The majority of our parents really want their children to stay in mainstream provision and it’s about enabling and skilling some schools to have the confidence around supporting children with special educational needs,” said Mrs Williamson.

She added: “At the heart of everything we’re doing, this is about absolutely improving children’s outcomes.

“As much as it’s got a cost-saving element to it, we cannot lose the fact that the decisions we make each and every day have to be about improving the educational outcomes of those children.”

Committee chair Carol Bulman (Middlewich, Lab) said the plan is beginning to work.

“We want our children in our borough, we don’t want to be sending them all over the place and this is the beginning, the green shoots, that really show that that is starting to happen,” she said.

Cheshire East, like many councils, is overspent on its special needs and disability budget because the cost of provision has outstripped government funding.

The council is currently holding this deficit in a ‘negative reserve’, as instructed by the former government, and is paying interest on it.

The £10m reduction will save the council about £1m in interest payments.

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