Bristol Ed Psych Cut Backs:
Bristol Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) funding has long reached crisis point in the city. Send is mostly funded by the High Needs Block, and it was cuts to this funding which prompted a Judicial Review in the summer of last year. Whilst the ‘unlawful’ cuts were rolled back, Send funding continues to be of massive concern to Bristol residents.
One of the biggest contentions at the moment is with Education Health Care Plans. This is a legal document which sets out a plan for a child’s education. Once it is finalised, the specified provision must be met. For parents, it is very important to make sure they get good quality legally-based advice. This is to make sure their child’s plan is fit for purpose.
A parent or school may apply for an EHCP if they feel a child has Send which cannot be met in school through the Notional SEN Budget.
The Notional SEN Budget was not affected by cuts to the High Needs Block. This is because it comes through the Schools Block, a different flow of money, but the funding is not ring-fenced.
However, the Notional SEN budget is often just not enough money for schools to adequately support the needs of children with SEN due to widespread cuts to education in England.
All schools in Bristol get the same notional SEN funding at 16 per cent, despite the number of children on the SEN register. This means there may be a ‘very small minority’ of schools in Bristol, where there is a ‘disproportionate’ number of children with SEND, who might need targeted additional support.
Although Bristol Schools’ Forum (BSF) where this was raised this week was keen to emphasise this would be ‘very, very few in number,’ the decision was made to pass this issue to their Finance Sub Group to review. Currently, this sub group is made up of people with a finance background and only one educationalist. Minutes for Forum Sub Group meetings in Bristol are not publicly available.
With schools struggling to meet the needs of children with Send in Bristol, it is not a huge surprise there is a rise in parents applying for EHCPs. This rise is often called ‘unprecedented’ by Marvin Rees and the Bristol SEN team. However, it’s not as simple as that. This rise could have been easily predicted after it was revealed that Bristol City Council was failing to use the lawful test for Needs Assessments.
In 2017, Mayor Marvin Rees, admitted that until the August of that year, Bristol City Council was failing to use the legal test specified in the Children’s and Families Act 2014. This meant that between 2016-17, 464 children had been refused assessment giving the council a 49 per cent refusal to assess rate – one of the highest in the country.
It would stand to reason that once the council were using the correct test of SEN, that a higher number of children would be getting a Needs Assessment.
This is reflected in a dramatic number of Needs Assessment Requests which the SEN team agreed to assess in 2018. But this caused other problems with the process, arguably one that was foreseeable. The council SEN team can’t keep up with rising demand. This is problematic because not only is it leaving children unsupported with their education, it places great strain on families, often leaves children with no educational provision and crucially, is completely unlawful.
From the moment a request for a Needs Assessment goes to a Local Authority, the clock starts ticking. The entire process should take no more than 20 weeks. But Bristol is currently seeing an EHCP process which has completely given up on lawful time frames. Families in the city are still waiting for draft plans to be issued between 40-50 weeks.
In 2018, Bristol City Council only managed to issue 24 per cent of EHCPs within the statutory time frame of 20 weeks. This had dropped by 47.7 per cent from 2017, when 78 per cent were issued within statutory time limits.
In a report for BSF on 16 January 2019, Principle Manager for SEND and Inclusion Services, Emilie Williams-Jones, wrote that ‘requests for statutory EHC Needs Assessments have continue to increase which continues to place an equally high level of demand on children and adults education, health and social care services, who along with young people and families are all involved in this process.’
Table 8 from that report above, shows the number of requests made to the Bristol SEN team per year. It shows an increase between 2016 – 2018 of total requests received.
It also shows an increase from 239 in 2016 to 570 in 2018 of the number of requests the council agreed to assess. By the BSF meeting on the 16 January 2019, there were 9 requests made at the start of the year, with 94 still waiting a panel decision.
Some of the families applying in 2018 for a Needs Assessment – the ‘unprecedented demand’ year – were simply families reapplying after being turned down in 2016. I can write with authority on that fact because we are one such family. And, we are one such family that second time around were agreed draft plans and are waiting in the 40-50 week time frame for one to materialise.
But in a High Needs Budget presentation to BSF on Wednesday 15 May 2019, it was noted that the spend on the commissioning ed psychs had dramatically dropped. During 2018, Bristol City Council may have used the lawful test to carry out more needs assessments, but what they had done to counter this was to pay less for ed psychs who are needed to carry out assessments for the process – a crucial role.
Alan Stubbersfield presented the information to BSF as part of a High Needs report. Noting the reduced spend he said: ‘Probably the most significant one on that is if you look at the attempts to save High Needs Block spend on psychologists and I think probably an unforeseen consequence of that in terms of that team’s ability to turn around assessments in a timely manner. I think there’s a question there about the extent to which we are appropriately supporting the ability of the Local Authority through its EP service to do what’s necessary.’
The continuing Send crisis in Bristol is not running in isolation. Obvious cuts to services such as ed psychs must be challenged. It would be difficult to imagine this has not been raised within Bristol’s ed psych team. The Bristol SEN team must also be at breaking point having to manage Needs Assessment Requests without the basic services they require to do so.
All the people charged with running Bristol City Council services are fully aware this is going on, yet are failing to take decisive action.
With BSF members lining up to ask why 40 unfilled spaces at resource bases have been paid to some schools at a rate of £10,000 per place over four years, it was noted that ‘urgent’ consideration was needed.
At the other end of the table, representatives for the Early Years Block, were desperately trying to cling onto an underspend, a percentage of which was proposed for transfer to the High Needs Block.
Clearly, money for Send and education is there, but is it being competently administrated?
An internal Audit Annual Report 2018/2019 for Audit Committee at the end of this month, stated that a ‘significant amount of money’ was owed to the council’s schools from neighbouring authorities. Recovery of an amount has already been made, but the total amount owed equated to £488k.
Bristol Send might be a ‘clunky system’, but that’s just not good enough. Bristol City Council is acting above the law, laws in place to protect education’s most vulnerable learners. Whilst Send parents might win one victory, there’s always another battle to fight. The integrity of those in charge of education should be challenged when it comes to seeing that money has been deliberately diverted away from fulfilling legal obligations – especially so with the Smoke and Mirrors trick of the woe-is-me ‘unprecedented demand’ argument.
There was no unprecedented demand. A Judicial Review forced the council to meet their obligations to children with SEN. In doing so, they had to assess children they would have unlawfully turned down in previous years. But, in doing so, they put barriers in place blocking those very children from accessing their much-needed educational psychologist assessments. And they knew they had done this.
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