Cash-strapped Norfolk County Council is already "off track" in its government-bankrolled bid to better control spending on children with special educational needs.

That has prompted extra monitoring of the authority by civil servants. 

Norfolk County Council signed a "safety valve" agreement with the government in March last year, with the council getting £70m for education services and support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) up until 2029.

Norwich Evening News: Norfolk County Council's County Hall headquartersNorfolk County Council's County Hall headquarters (Image: Mike Page)

The bailout is to cover the deficit the Conservative-controlled council accrued amid a rising number of children needing specialist provision or extra support at school - and the increasing complexity of their needs.

Norwich Evening News: Norfolk County Council was awarded £70m to help cope with rising demand for SEND servicesNorfolk County Council was awarded £70m to help cope with rising demand for SEND services (Image: Press Association)

The council's Local First Inclusion programme aims to change the way children's needs are met, including supporting SEND children in mainstream schools and newly-built Norfolk specialist schools, reducing costly out-of-county placements.

But, just a few months after the agreement was signed, the council told the Department for Education (DfE) its scheme was "off track" and was likely to have an £11.8m deficit in 2028/29.

When the deal was struck, the council, which this month is due to agree £52m of cuts and savings, agreed it would balance the deficit within seven years. But it now estimates it will take eight.

That prompted the DfE to introduce enhanced monitoring, while the council is doing a "stock take".

Norwich Evening News: Maxine Webb, independent Norfolk county councillorMaxine Webb, independent Norfolk county councillor

Independent county councillor Maxine Webb said: "With no more money and DfE only focused on the numbers, this can only mean bad news and more dread for children and families."

With the council talking about "managing parental expectations", she fears youngsters would be at the "sharp end" of mitigations to control spending.

The county council said, since original projections were made, support referrals had risen beyond what had been expected.

The authority said mitigations would include enhancements to initial responses to new requests for help, plus further integration between special and mainstream schools.

Norwich Evening News: Penny Carpenter, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's servicesPenny Carpenter, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's services (Image: Norfolk County Council)

Penny Carpenter, cabinet member for children's services, said: "We have been clear from the outset the programme is about investment and new ways of working, and not about reducing support for children with SEND. This remains the case.

"The fact the trajectory is having to be refreshed is precisely because we are committed to continuing to meet needs and have, therefore, spent more money in 2023 than originally projected."