Special School Places Crisis Continues With Alternative Provision Costs Spiralling

Special school places and Alternative Provision Bristol:

It’s been hard to pin down exactly how many Bristol children and young people are currently in Alternative Learning Provision (ALP), especially those with an EHCP. Information and data regarding Send in Bristol is not easily given out. It’s not just members of the public struggling with answers to Send questions. The People Scrutiny Commission have also come up against inaccurate and questionable data.

ALP or AP is education outside of mainstream school which has been arranged by a local authority for children in KS1-4. It’s put into place for pupils who have been permanently excluded, may be at risk of exclusion or for whom mainstream education is inappropriate.

ALP includes Pupil Referral Units, Hospital Education, education for children in custody, Alternative Provision free schools and Independent alternative learning providers.

In March 2016, Bristol City Council published commissioning plan Meeting the Needs of ‘Pushed Out Learners: Education for students with additional social and emotional needs. It adopted the name Pushed Out Learners from a research paper by the Inclusion Trust, to describe young people who find themselves marginalised from conventional schools, who may have been permanently excluded, may have disengaged or may have special educational needs and disability (Send) or social emotional and mental health difficulties (SEMH). These barriers make accessing mainstream difficult causing the child or young person to become ‘pushed out’.

AP set ups are registered Ofsted provision. But, Bristol schools can also buy in AP services and part time education provision from private providers that pupils may attend part time for 12 weeks at a time. This does not have to be registered with Ofsted so is not independently monitored.

With a shortage of special school places in the city, children and young people are remaining for longer than 12 weeks in unregistered AP provision, with some carers reporting to us that their children are languishing in part time  provision for months and some saying that education with these services during this time is not provided at all.

In papers submitted to Cabinet for the 10/07/2019, former interim Director of Education in Bristol, Alan Stubbersfield wrote in the Review of SEND Capacity and Projection Data: ‘Feedback from Special schools and data from the Council Place Planning Team demonstrates that many of our settings are reaching capacity. Increasingly providers and the Council have to work together in innovative ways to ensure there are enough funded places within the city to cater for the young people that need them.’

The paper also stated that over the 6 months following the Cabinet meeting, the council would be reviewing the area capacity of its Send schools against the DfE area guidelines. This would see if the schools were overfull or if they could he used ‘more efficiently’. A public document in this respect has not been released.

The 2019 report found that against diagnosis rate, special school capacity would be reached in 2020/21, with additional capacity needed from 2020. An extra 120 places would be needed by 2027/28 with the majority of the places needed in secondary and ‘for the large growth need area of young people with autism needs.’

Key considerations in the report found that ‘Due to a lack of SEMH/ASD and ASC places it is currently common for young people with those specific needs and often EHCP’s to be sent to ALP provision. Alternative Learning Provision fulfils the role of Pupil Referral Units (PRU’s) and should not be seen as a permanent solution.’

But whilst the ‘council strategy’ in the summer of 2019 was based around ‘reducing and eliminating the use of ALP’ where it is ‘not’ appropriate for the needs a pupil with an EHCP, the required ‘permanent special school places’ which would needed to ‘be made available’ just aren’t materialising.

The Department for Education (DfE) is developing a new Learn@ Trust SEMH and autism school at the old Soundwell fire station site in South Gloucestershire which may provide 80 places but will not open until 2021 at the earliest. The DfE is also developing a new 80 place ALP in Sea Mills, but this would be ‘unsuitable’ for pupils with SEMH and autism, who ‘form the majority’ of Bristol’s ‘capacity challenge in the short to medium term’.

An 80 place provision would be a drop in the ocean when one Bristol special school for autistic children Tweeted this month about being overwhelmed with the sheer number of consults it is receiving from 5 different LAs.

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AP cost was challenged in November 26 2019 Bristol Schools Forum meeting, when a forum member asked about emerging pressures in AP. Council officers attributed this to pressures starting in year such as the termination of the contract by Catch 22.

The closure of Catch 22 on 27 October 2019 – an AP with which Bristol City Council had a block contract to provide 30 places and 19 additional places through spot purchase contracts – came about after an Inadequate Ofsted inspection.

Ofsted wrote: ‘Most pupils have been withdrawn or excluded from their previous school or education. Many pupils have education, health and care plans, usually relating to their social, emotional and mental health needs.’

The actual figures in council paperwork shows that 48 Bristol students living in the city were affected by the closure of the provision, with all learners having a primary Special Education Need of SEMH. Worryingly, of those 48 learners out of school due to Send, they were all aged above 15 with only 4 students having an EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plan). This further indicates the failure of the EHCP process in Bristol, which Ofsted and the CQC called in its joint Send inspection last year ‘dysfunctional’.

Cabot Learning Federation (CLF) successfully tendered to take over the AP contract, providing a block contract for 50 places in total. This replaces the 30 place block contract and spot provision of additional 19 places. The additional cost over the whole contract term from November 19 until August 2021 was estimated at £1,026K and approved by cabinet in December 2019.

ALP cost was challenged again at Bristol Schools Forum on Wednesday 15 January 2020 during a Dedicated Schools’ Grant 19/20 budget update. The report found there are ’emerging pressures’ within the block ‘particularly in Out of Area Placements and for Alternative Provision’.

Alternative Provision Bristol

The closure of Catch 22 and subsequent rising costs of the CLF taking it over as well as a doubling in funding to Woodstock caused some consternation.

A school forum member asked: “There’s a massive increase in alternative provision costs in this, there’s the doubling of funding to Woodstock, there’s the increases to Catch 22, there’s almost a million pounds going in ALP Spot Purchasing. Although the local authority knows that there are young people who have EHCs who are in alternative provision when actually they should be in special schools. What’s happening, instead of them going to a provision which is set up to cater for their needs they’re going into alternative provision. We’re having to purchase a huge package, up to, of what I’m aware up to about £85 thousand on top of place funding to accommodate need. That’s a huge cost. So I just wondered if there’s any kind of strategic thinking in how the local authority is looking at those they’re in alternative provision, why they’re in alternative provision and having a longer term view of what the special school capacity is and how that’s going to meet the needs of young people in a more cost effective way?”

Director of Education and Skills, Alison Hurley replied: “I think it’s a really pertinent point actually and I think it’s the joining up of all the areas that you’ve just mentioned into a single strategy is a piece of work that needs to take place. It’s why I don’t think we should separate hospital education from alternative provision but look at it as a sufficiency piece of work in terms of what are needed in Bristol, what we anticipate it being going forward and what provision we have in place and what needs those different provisions are meeting because need changes over time. So what we’ve got at the moment is a model that isn’t necessarily fit for purpose for our current children and young people in Bristol so that is absolutely part of the wider strategic piece and on that wider sufficiency.”

Another forum member asked: “The government, back in December, whether you like it not, free schools look as if they’re going to be rolled out even further and there’s going to be an emphasis on alternative provision.  Is the local authority currently talking to any providers about putting in bids to do that and address the need? Because, I’m presuming that Bristol’s not got funding to tackle the problem so that’s the only place that’s going to come from so is there any discussions to address this need that Bristol has?”

Alison replied: “I think there are two answers to that. Yes, there have been some discussions but until we absolutely identify the need through a review and know what that is, I think it’s very difficult to have a wider strategic conversation in terms of what we need to expand, whether we need to re-purpose current provision and what that looks like and where that need’s going to be in terms of location and geography in the city. So for me, there have been conversations because the need has meant it had to happen but that’s happened in isolation, I think it’s got to be a far more strategic and open conversation right the way across the city provision.”

Whilst reviews into AP continue at the council, the lack of special school places continues to remain a crisis. A spokesperson for Bristol Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Alliance said: “We hear from more families each week who are struggling to get children with ECHPs a special school place. During this time, they may be in unsuitable alternative provision or not even accessing any education at all. Families are forced to pay for solicitors and engage in the stressful and lengthy tribunal process. We are far past the point of reviews and at the point where special school provision must be in place so all children, regardless of need, are accessing Ofsted registered and high quality schooling.”

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