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Children with Higher Needs: Stoke-on-Trent

Volume 664: debated on Monday 9 September 2019

6. If he will hold discussions with Stoke-on-Trent City Council on its plans to fund services for children with higher needs. (912314)

Next year local authorities, including Stoke-on-Trent City Council, will share in an increase of more than £700 million in higher-needs funding. We will hold separate discussions with the authorities that have raised specific issues with us.

The Minister will be well aware that, as part of its higher-needs recovery plan, Stoke-on-Trent City Council proposes to plunder classroom budgets by £14.5 million over the next four years. The headteachers in the city are opposed to the plan, which will require a sign-off from the Department in order to go ahead. Will the Minister make a commitment today that rather than signing it off, she will convene a meeting of the headteachers in Stoke-on-Trent, so that alternative arrangements can be found that do not necessitate robbing Peter to pay Paul?

We are aware of the issues that have arisen in Stoke-on-Trent. The commissioner is due to submit a report to the Department today, and officials will review it and submit recommendations to me in due course. Once a decision has been made, the report will be published.

A number of children with higher needs in Stoke-on-Trent attend Horton Lodge Community Special School in my constituency, where there is great concern about the provision of funds for residential care and the possibility that the school will become unviable. Will the Minister meet me, and perhaps consider visiting Horton Lodge, to see what we can do to ensure that that wonderful, special place continues to operate for many years to come?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this case in her constituency. Yes, that is something that we should be able to do for her.

The Minister has just referred to a report which is currently under way, and which relates to children’s social services rather than the high-needs budget. The cuts proposed by Stoke-on-Trent City Council will cost every secondary school £100,000 and every primary school £50,000. That is money we cannot afford to spend. Will the Minister undertake to accept the request from my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), and convene a meeting of headteachers before the Secretary of State signs off a deal?

We are aware that local authorities are facing significant pressures. That is why we are making an additional investment of more than £700 million, which will help them to manage those pressures next year. The Department has been looking at this matter, and we will be in touch with Stoke-on-Trent in due course to decide on the best possible actions to be taken in the future.

I welcome the new Minister to her post. As she will know, children with special needs rely on help with speech and language and on counselling support, but the Children’s Commissioner has published research showing that the severe underfunding of those services is seriously damaging children’s lives and futures. Even after the spending review and the additional funding to which the Minister has referred, we still face a £1 billion shortfall in special educational needs services by 2021. Given that the Government could so easily find £1 billion to bribe the Democratic Unionist party, will the Minister agree, here and now, to find the same amount to fully fund the services that the country’s most vulnerable children so desperately need?

I met the Children’s Commissioner last week, and discussed this issue among many others. We welcome her report. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government are spending £7 billion on special educational needs, and are adding an additional £700 million. That is part of the extra £14 billion that we are spending over three years, and I think that it is to be welcomed.[Official Report, 25 September 2019, Vol. 664, c. 7MC.]