SOMERSET headteachers have clashed with the county council over possible cuts to special needs provision in schools.

The council has been exploring ways to fund special needs provision through schools’ individual budgets, to make up for a shortfall in central government funding.

Heads of secondary schools across the county have written to the council, claiming it is impossible to find £2.4M in savings without making redundancies, and stating their trust in the council is “at rock bottom”.

Local MP Ian Liddell-Grainger has also called on the government to step in directly, branding director of children’s services Julian Wooster an “overpaid council overlord”.

Somerset County Council has said it is happy to work with headteachers to find a solution to the issues, and said it had “complete confidence” in Mr Wooster’s performance.

Here’s everything you need to know:

What is the source of the problem?

The dispute centres on the “high needs element” of the dedicated schools grant (DSG) – money from central government which the council spends on pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The amount that Somerset receives from the government is not enough to cover the cost of all SEND pupils and facilities – with schools being asked to make up the difference through savings in other parts of their budgets.

The Schools Forum (which represents Somerset’s schools) agreed in the spring of 2019 that around £2M in savings would have to be found.

But further consultation over where these savings may come from has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic – leaving head teachers feeling that decisions have been taken to make cuts without their input.

What have the headteachers said?

A letter detailing teachers’ grievances was sent to the council’s chief executive Pat Flaherty by the Somerset Association of Secondary Heads (SASH).

The letter was jointly signed by SASH chairman Peter Elliot and executive officer Mark Woodlock, as well as Mark Griffin who chairs the Somerset Schools Forum.

The letter stated that the relationship between schools and the council’s leadership “has deteriorated and is now causing grave concern” to parents, pupils and staff.

The authors make the following allegations:

The council presented a series of decisions about where savings could be achieved on February 25 “with no advance notice or opportunity for discussion or input”

The proposals involve cuts to the pupil referral units (PRUs) across the county and the Behaviour Partnership Funds, which benefit pupils in Frome and West Somerset

These £2.4M savings are impossible to achieve without significant staff redundancies – something which the council has denied

In light of the short notice given, many schools and PRUs have been unable to plan their budgets for the next 12 months

They stated: “The delicate relationship between the council and schools has been damaged, and trust and confidence in the director of children’s services further eroded.

“Mr Wooster fails to acknowledge how saving £2.4M without jobs losses is irreconcilable, given most schools spend in the region of 85 per cent of their income on staffing.

“At the heart of this are often vulnerable children who require greater care and attention in order for them to succeed in education. Our emphasis should be on preventative work.

“Removing or reducing this preventative, partnership work from the PRUs will simply increase the number of students permanently excluded and therefore create a greater budget and social issues further down the line.

“That is why having a cogent, broad, considered plan that explains what actions will be required and how they will be funded is imperative. We appear to be a long way away from that.”

What has Mr Liddell-Grainger done?

The SASH letter was leaked to Mr Liddell-Grainger – a frequent critic of the council’s record – by an anonymous source.

The Bridgwater and West Somerset MP has written to education secretary Gavin Williamson MP, forwarding on the SASH letter and calling for the Department for Education (DfE) to intervene in the matter.

He commented: “This letter shows a total breakdown of good relations between senior school staff and the county council.

“The heads place blame squarely at the door of Julian Wooster, Somerset’s

director of children’s services, who was recently given a second job by the DfE – chairing Northamptonshire Children’s Trust.

“Today (March 26) I have written to education secretary Gavin

Williamson asking him to intervene. It is unacceptable for our key educationalists to be ignored for so long by an overpaid council overlord.”

How has the council responded?

Somerset County Council said the issues raised were part of “a long-running debate” surrounding school funding, and said it was happy to engage with headteachers to find a solution.

A spokesman said: “We are grateful for all the hard work our schools and our head teachers have carried out, and continue to provide, during the pandemic to support all students across Somerset.

“We note the points in the private letter – this is clearly a long-running debate, and although we disagree with much of the content within the letter we are happy to confirm that we will engage with SASH and explore solutions where appropriate.

“We will seek prompt resolution that will enable our joint collective and important work helping students of all abilities across our county.

“As SASH correctly point out in their letter, in addition to the £340M mainstream school funding, there is a £60M high needs element of the schools grant which supports the education of our most vulnerable children.

“This funds the excellent special schools and bases, and pupil referral units in Somerset, and also pays for specialist provision for students whose needs cannot be met in Somerset schools.

“We recognise that the current level of this grant from government is not sufficient to meet all the needs in Somerset.

“However the proportion of Somerset children needing support from this grant continues to grow rapidly, and we are asking schools to look at ways they can support more children with SEND in their schools, so that this grant can go to those most in need.”

The council also stated that it had “complete confidence” in Mr Wooster and said it was investing more in schools and children’s services as part of its budget approved in February.

The spokesman added: “It is disappointing that we appear to be criticised at a time we are investing £1.7M, on top of additional government funding of £7M, into this budget by picking up the costs of specialist education advisers and investing £46M in building new special school places.

“One point we are happy to comment on publicly is our complete confidence in Julian Wooster as our director of children’s services.

“Not only is he doing an outstanding job supporting and championing the interests of all Somerset children, but he has been nationally recognised as a leader in this area with his recent additional appointment as chair of the Northamptonshire Children’s Trust.”