BURY Council says it could face a further £2m shortfall in funding for special educational needs on top of an existing £13m deficit.

Members of Bury Council’s overview and scrutiny committee were told that around 50 independent special school placements for children with complex needs were currently “in the pipeline”.

But funds are now being diverted into early intervention in the hope the majority of children can be kept within the authority’s school system, with extra support from a specialist team.

However, if the special school placements have to go ahead then the authority will have to find an additional £1.5m this financial year – rising to £2m by December 2019.

This would bring the overspend against the government’s Dedicated School’s Grant (DSG) to £15m.

Worries over the potential £2m extra overspend were brought up by committee members Cllr Stella Smith and Cllr Bob Caserta.

But finance chief Eamonn O’Brien said that a “turnaround plan” was already in place to tackle the problem.

He said: “The results of that work are already starting to be shown , and we are excluding a lot less. The turnaround plan is very much in place and is based around few exclusions and a significant reduction in out-of-borough placements.

“It’s not only about reduction in funding, but using that funding in different way, rather than funding a placement for a primary school pupil that could be better used to build capacity in schools.”

Cllr Smith queried what would happen if the early-intervention efforts are unsuccessful.

She said: “Obviously money that is going to have to be used at the front end to prevent higher expenditure later is not going to be used to reduce the deficit.

“Where is the £1.5m going to be found from if money used at the “front end” to prevent it happening doesn’t work?

“Hopefully it won’t be as high as 50 placements, but we have to bargain for the whole 50, really.”

Cllr O’Brien agreed it was important that the situation was “immediately turned around” given the overall deficit of £13m – and rising.

He said: “I believe these plans are robust enough to do that, it fits in with the agenda for schools to collaborate and work together more. I don’t think it’s the local authority’s role to pick up the pieces, but to build up capacity as quickly as we can.”

But he added that the situation was as much about the complexity of individual cases as the number involved.

He said: “Any more additional case on top of this will simply sit on top of this unless we deal with it now, we will carry that through until the leave care.

“Once you are in the system it’s very difficult to get out of the system, it can be a case of the money being at the wrong end when it gets to severe – we want it to be as close to prevention and early intervention as it can be.”

Cllr Caserta said that the council had been pursuing early intervention for years, without the desired effect.

He said: “The money doesn’t seem to have an impact, we haven’t reaped the rewards.”

However Cllr O’Brien said it was difficult to assess the success of previous prevention work as, without early intervention, the figure deficit could be still higher.