Haringey Council will apply to join a national relief scheme to tackle a “huge overspend” on special education needs and disabilities that could “seriously undermine” its finances.

Councillors agreed to join the “safety valve” programme run by the Department for Education (DfE), which is designed to eliminate deficits in the dedicated schools grant (DSG) that it receives from the government to fund school budgets.

According to a report presented to a meeting of the council’s cabinet on Tuesday, if growth in spending on the high needs block of the grant continues unchecked, the authority would face an estimated £83 million cumulative deficit in the DSG by 2028 – posing a “critical financial risk”.

The report states that joining the safety valve programme would be the “best option” to reduce the risk. It means that if the council can eliminate the in-year DSG deficit – currently £4.6 million – within five years, the government will provide funding to bring down the cumulative deficit, which is currently £21.5 million.

To tackle the in-year deficit, the council will need to draw up “a series of detailed plans for systemic change and service transformation” that will require approval from the DfE.

Zena Brabazon, cabinet member for children, schools and families, told Tuesday’s meeting that coming up with the transformation plan would be a “challenge” but one that she felt the SEND service could meet, as it is already undergoing a “wider strategic change process”.

She added: “This work provides a further springboard for more extensive and longer-term change, whereby Send resources will be prioritised for early intervention and support, and where changes as to how and where Send services are provided are linked to a wider education strategy.”

The council is already looking to reduce costs by investing in more school places for pupils with Send inside the borough so that fewer children will require more expensive out-of-borough education.

To further reduce costs as part of the safety valve programme, it is planning to increase early intervention programmes to reduce the need for education, health and care plans (EHCPs), which provide Send pupils with more support.

The number of children and young people in Haringey with an EHCP was 2,637 at the beginning of August – up from 1,820 in 2018 – as increasing numbers of pupils with special educational needs are identified.

Further measures to reduce the deficit include transferring funds from other parts of the DSG to reduce the overspend on high-needs support.

In response to a question from fellow cabinet member Julie Davies, Cllr Brabazon said she was confident that young people with special needs and their families would not be disadvantaged by the decision to join the safety valve programme.

Overspends in the high-needs block were “not uncommon”, she added, claiming the government had not provided extra funding to meet the costs of previous Send reforms.

Under questioning from Liberal Democrat group leader Luke Cawley-Harrison, council officers explained that the authority is currently able to carry over the deficits in the DSG. But as the government had indicated this arrangement may not continue, joining the safety valve scheme would be the best way to avoid having to use council’s general fund to pay down the debt.

Cabinet members agreed unanimously to join the safety valve scheme. The council’s final plans to join the programme will be submitted to DfE on 6th October, with approval from the government expected by December.