Top up funding is causing the latest consternation at Bristol City Council surrounding the growing High Needs Block, the part of education funding covering Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).

Schools use SEN funding to pay for additional specialist resources to support pupils with their learning. Sometimes this might be auxiliary aids, computer programs, extra classroom support or professional advice such as educational psychologists or speech and language therapy.

For children and young people with more complex needs, schools can apply for additional funding called top up funding. The setting must use this money on the pupil the funding is for and used to pay for additional specialist support, interventions and resources.

As part of the application process, schools must show Bristol City Council how they have used their Notional SEN budget as well as Pupil Premium if appropriate.

Schools make applications to top up panels. The next round in mid to late November will be held virtually due to coronavirus.

Bristol City Council’s has strict rules surrounding top up funding applications and how much is given. The criteria for each need is banded with specific funding allocated to each band.

For Band 1, Bristol mainstream primary and secondary schools receive no funding at all. But Bristol secondary schools are also ineligible for Band 2 funding.

According to Bristol City Council Band 2 for Social Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs: ‘Typically pupils require an enhanced pupil/adult ratio so that they can receive specific support, supervision and interventions in order to make expected progress, and/or they need to work within a small group for a high proportion of the day.

And for Physical Disabilities and/or Medical Needs (PD):

Top up funding was a source of discussion at Bristol Schools Forum this week – 22/09/2020 – featuring heavily in both an update on the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) budget monitor as well as Director of Education and Skills Alison Hurley’s update on the Education Transformation Programme.

Finance manager for Bristol City Council, Graham Booth told Bristol Schools Forum members that the council had started to gather data to do activity reviews and analysis to see if the increase was ‘just a blip’ or an ‘upward trajectory.’

He said the high needs block was giving the ‘most pressure’ and though the council ‘can explain it’ it is not a ‘sustainable position at the moment’.

He told forum members: ‘The biggest pressure there that stands outs is the high needs block at the moment we’ve got an in year variance of over £3M on the high needs block and that is even taking into account the additional funding that’s gone into the high needs block from central Government this year.

‘Most of this pressure is in top ups and I think it’s a reflection of the increased demand and a lot of that increased demand is as a result of the really good work that the SEN teams are doing on getting rid of the backlog and pushing more EHCPs through.

‘And it’s all the stuff we’re doing in response to the Ofsted inspection and the stuff that’s contained in the Written Statement of Action. But that’s actually having a knock-on effect in the finances.’

Labour party Councillor for Easton, Ruth Pickersgill raised the issue of a top up funding formula being used during lockdown which was not allocating the right banding of top to schools.

She said: ‘I was talking to someone the other day and it may not be right, but what they told me, it was a SendCo, they said that they’d received more top up than they’d asked for for some children. I just wondered, how many schools, or whether we can look at how many schools actually got more than they asked for in terms of top up and if we’ve got such a really big problem with overspend on top up it seems a bit odd that any school would get more than they actually asked for. So I wondered whether that could be looked at?’

Alison Hurley responded to her query, discussing the new top up formula which had been causing unrest in Bristol.

She said: ‘This is related to the top up that we had to allocate during lockdown. And so what we weren’t able to do was have the range of face to face meetings and forums, it’s quite a detailed piece that involved a lot of schools you know, a hundred schools coming in and having all of those face to face meetings about individual children and young people.

‘We had to move at speed and create a sort of formula driven piece that absolutely isn’t ideal going forward. It’s the only time we’ve ever done it. And what that meant is there was a small proportion that ended up with slightly more and a small proportion that ended up with slightly less. There were other elements to that that sort of prioritised various different areas to make sure that the funding was absolutely inline, particularly those with a high level of needs.

‘I don’t know the numbers of how many ended up with more. I don’t think it was significant because that was the best solution given It was a formula driven piece.

‘We are working to now that particularly now we obviously are not out of this particular situation and unlikely to be able to do a face to face one again for the next round which I think, I might be wrong but I think that might be November. We obviously need to have something that’s a bit more intuitive now we’ve got a bit more longer to plan for it basically.’

In response, Ruth Pickersgill said: ‘That’s helpful, I didn’t realise it was done on a formula but maybe if we’re going to do it again on a formula we could say it’s a formula but we’re not going to give you more than you need because you know, it really doesn’t seem very sensible when we’re really trying to, you know, be careful with every penny of it.’

Simon Holmes, head of St Philip’s Marsh Nursery School broached the idea of using Bristol City Council’s reserves to plug the funding gap saying: ‘I just think, you know we’re all being asked to think outside the box, which is a good idea. But we’ve been told we’re in the biggest national crisis since World War 2.

‘Education is a national priority and yet we got enormous pressure, which doesn’t seem to me any simple way out of on our budgets for the most vulnerable children in our city. Does the local authority have any power to use its reserves, in a national crisis, in order to support its most vulnerable citizens. And is this something Schools’ Forum can make a political case to the powers that be that they should be used in these circumstances as everyone keeps saying they’re unprecedented.

‘Education is a priority, we’re in very different times, maybe we should be making a bigger ask rather than endlessly just trying to you know, get blood out of a stone or something. We just don’t have the money. Is that a possibility or is that just off the scale?’

Director of Finance at Bristol City Council, Denise Murray in response called it ‘unprecedented’ and a ‘national crisis’ not just for the education sector but for the Local Authority and that the council is ‘constantly making representation to government’ in order to meet costs.

She said: ‘The key point in terms of the high needs deficit is that you will recall last year that the guidance restricts Local Authorities from using General Fund to meet the deficit that we see in high needs which is what we currently have now.

‘And we have asked the question in terms of how much of this spend is attributed to COVID because I believe that if we can demonstrate it is attributed to COVID then there is a difference representation that could be made be made but the initial feedback is that this isn’t COVID related. It’s purely as a result of clearing the backlog and also the new plans etcetera.

‘So I think what we need to do is do the analysis to be really clear on what is driving the cost. What is the pressure? Is it purely the backlog or are there some other factors of which we could pick up and address collaboratively that at present the guidance doesn’t allow us to utilise General Fund to meet DSG deficits but also we’ve got to recognise the Local Authority’s own challenges and that we also have not only 2021 challenges from COVID but we also have the next three years challenges from COVID as well of which at present we’re being asked to to fund from our own reserves. So it is a double edged sword, so it isn’t a single challenge that we’re trying to address.’

Jumping in, Alison Hurley tried to ‘give a scale’ of what she called the ‘new reality’ for the council in terms of what was driving the funding.

She said: ‘If we just take education health and care plans, for example, the team have finalised nearly 200 more plans by the beginning of September than they had in the full year last year. So we’re talking about a significant increase that you know equates to additional costs that’s coming through the system and it’s you know, a good problem to have but there are financial implications against those figures.’

Top up funding came up for discussion again during Hurley’s update on the Education Transformation Plan, with a new model for the funding in development.

She said: ‘One of the key pieces of work in terms of the education transformation is to completely review the way top up funding is allocated so actually, this sort of picks up on Ruth’s point earlier. And come up and create a new model, all of the consultation has taken place and so the main piece of work that’s happening is that obviously the finance framework that sits behind the matrix is being developed at the moment and that’s quite a significant piece.

‘The other thing to just mention there is we have had quite a bit of debate about the fact that this piece of work had started to focus on schools, however, there was absolutely the need to have a similar approach to Early Years top up funding. So we’ve been able to expand that project and continue with the schools at the sort of pace that we were and also make sure that we’re able to incorporate Early Years as well, which I think is a really positive way forward. I think it would have been hard to then do a separate piece for early years following that.’

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