Norfolk children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are travelling hundreds of miles to go to school, as a multi-million pound funding gap continues to threaten services in the county.

New data has found that some 33 SEND pupils leave Norfolk and travel more than 20 miles to go to a school that can cater for their needs.

At least two of that number travel almost 300 miles from Downham Market to Devon. Others travel to Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, Halesowen in the West Midlands and Frome in Somerset - with the furthest arrangements being residential and not requiring daily commuting.

Leon Smith, CEO of the Norfolk and Norwich SEND Association (Nansa), said his organisation was “not surprised” by the investigation and that families of children with SEND “face impossible challenges”.

Eastern Daily Press: Leon Smith, CEO of the Norfolk and Norwich SEND Association (Nansa)Leon Smith, CEO of the Norfolk and Norwich SEND Association (Nansa) (Image: Nansa)

But the county council insisted it was committed to delivering "the best possible education" to young people with SEND.

The data, sourced by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), shows how councils across England are continuing to grapple with a black hole in funding for the rising numbers of children who need extra help.

TBIJ’s investigation has found the special needs deficit across England has reached at least £1.3bn — an increase of around £450m in the last year alone.

With a projected overall deficit of £51.8m - including a forecast increase of around £20m in the last year - Norfolk is among the worst affected authorities in England. Only Kent, Surrey, Devon and Hampshire have bigger deficits.

Nansa chief executive Mr Smith said the investigation’s findings “unfortunately highlight what we see on a daily basis; the demand for SEND provision in Norfolk far exceeds the support available".

He continued: “Families of children with SEND face impossible challenges, whether that be transport, diagnosis, healthcare, education, employment, the list goes on.

“There are some exceptional examples of SEND provision across our county, but most (including services at Nansa) must tackle increasingly difficult waiting lists.

Eastern Daily Press: County Hall in Norwich, the headquarters of Norfolk County CouncilCounty Hall in Norwich, the headquarters of Norfolk County Council (Image: Archant)

“The pandemic and cost of living crisis have only exacerbated the barriers our community of SEND families face."

Some 471 SEND children in Norfolk travel out of the county to go to school, but 438 of that number have a journey of less than 20 miles, suggesting that most of them go to schools in neighbouring Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire.

A spokesman for the Local Government Association told TBIJ: “Meeting the year-on-year increase in demand for SEND support is one of the biggest challenges that councils are dealing with.

“Councils lack the levers to bring this spending under control and this is a key issue that needs to be addressed.”

Norfolk County Council has opened two new-build special schools, one in Great Yarmouth for children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties and one in Fakenham for children with autism, with a third special school due to open at Easton, near Norwich, next year.

It has also created 11 new specialist resource bases (SRBs) for a range of needs at Thetford, Cromer, Norwich, Caister, Mundesley and Downham Market.

Consultations are live on a further 60 potential new SRB places in Bradwell, Old Buckenham and Stalham, with more SRBs due to open in the next 18 months.

But Stephen Kingdom, a spokesman for the Disabled Children’s Partnership - a coalition of 100 children’s and disability charities - was critical of the county authority, claiming there had been “a real terms spending cut of £655,000 on services for disabled children in Norfolk, during the five years before the pandemic”.

Eastern Daily Press: Stephen Kingdom, spokesman for the Disabled Children's PartnershipStephen Kingdom, spokesman for the Disabled Children's Partnership (Image: Disabled Children's Partnership)

He said: "With one of the largest funding gaps in the country, Norfolk County Council needs to do more to ensure disabled children and their families receive the support they are entitled to."

A 2020 inspection by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) of Norfolk's SEND services noted that "leaders do not know enough about the outcomes for children and young people with SEND who are... placed in independent provision and/or in out-of-county schools".

Conservative councillor Daniel Elmer, the authority’s deputy cabinet member for children’s services, said in response to TBIJ's findings: “We are committed to working with our partners to ensure the Norfolk SEND system can deliver the best possible education, health and social care services for children and young people with SEND – we have high aspirations for all our children and young people and want to do all we can to help them flourish in our county.

Eastern Daily Press: Daniel Elmer, Norfolk County Council's deputy cabinet member for children's services.Daniel Elmer, Norfolk County Council's deputy cabinet member for children's services. (Image: Norfolk Conservatives)

“The council has invested £120m in our five-year SEND transformation programme which has already delivered more than half of the 500 new specialist education places it aimed to provide around the county.

“And we are working on a shared plan with our Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and wider health system colleagues to address the areas of weakness which were identified by the Ofsted/CQC inspection in 2020."

He said the authority had initiated 109 separate actions to improve communication and to support young people with SEND transition into adult life.

He added: “Many of the challenges we face in Norfolk are also being encountered all over the country against a backdrop of rising demand, difficulties in sourcing localised provision for very high needs children, and the unsustainable costs of the SEND system nationally which have contributed to our funding gap.

“All of these issues have been acknowledged by the DfE in the recent government SEND Green Paper.”