An average of £28,000 is ploughed into just one school place in Bucks, it has been revealed – as councillors scrutinised next year’s financial plans for education.
Bucks County Council’s (BCC) budget scrutiny committee reconvened on January 9 to grill cabinet members on the budget for the financial year 2019/20.
Pressures within the home-to-school transport service, special education needs (SEND) and school places were among the hot-topics raised to cabinet member for education, Mike Appleyard.
The education chief assured members he is “confident” the 6,500 new school places planned for the next four years will be enough for the county as major school expansion work gets underway.
Finance director for children’s services, Elizabeth Williams, went on to reveal the average secondary school place in Bucks costs £28,000 while a primary school place costs £22,000.
However, Cllr Appleyard said the average figures “don’t tell you very much” as special school places can cost a lot more, whereas adding an extra class to an existing school would cost less.
The government puts £16,500 towards a £28,000 school place – while BCC foots the remaining bill.
Cllr Appleyard said: “We find that money from section 106 agreements, which is money allocated or negotiated by the district councils, along with community infrastructure levy – money coming from negotiations with developers who build houses and therefore make a contribution to the facilities required by the people who live in those houses.”
The draft budget allocates £110.6 million to funding primary and secondary school places and a further £16.7 million for schools’ maintenance work.
Rising costs of SEND provision is the biggest pressure with the education budget, according to Cllr Appleyard – who says the service is heading in the same direction as the overstretched children’s and adult social care.
Cllr Appleyard added: “There’s only one big thing in the budget that scares us – and that is the cost of special needs.
“We are heading in the same direction as vulnerable people in the children and adult social care budgets, which you understand is under some pressure.
“What I am saying to you, as is every authority, special needs is heading in the same direction. That is where we are putting most of our efforts.
“It’s big numbers, and because the numbers are growing it’s very difficult to manage them.”
Director of education at BCC, Sarah Callaghan, said the key reason for rising SEND costs is an 80 per cent increase of children with autism over the last five years and a 22 per cent increase in pupils with social and emotional behavioural issues.
The rise in the number of children with more complex needs leads to increasing home to school transport and placement costs.
Councillor for The Risboroughs, Bill Bendyshe Brown, asked Cllr Appleyard if the education chiefs ahve “got to grips” with home-to-school transport costs – following a recent public consultation into an overhaul of the service.
BCC currently spends £15.1 million a year on getting almost 10,000 pupils to school – £12.7 million of which goes towards statutory requirements set by government.
The pressures have seen the council bust its school transport budget by £1.3 million – prompting a redesign of the service in a bid to travel more pupils to travel to school independently.
Cllr Appleyard said: “The reality is that we have largely got the paid for transport about right, it’s there or thereabouts, and we are never going to get anything like a balance for eligible students because they automatically get free transport, so that’s going to be a big element of budget whatever we do. All we can do is reduce the costs.”