The Future of Education in Bristol

Education in Bristol:

At Bristol Parent Carer’s Annual Participation Event on Thursday 06 June 2019, Jacqui Jensen, Bristol City Council’s Executive Director of Adults, Children and Education joined Alan Stubbersfield, Interim Director of Education Learning and Skills Improvement to talk about the future of education in the city.

The pair attended both the morning and the afternoon session, the below transcript is from the morning.

The event was hosted by Bristol Parent Carer’s Nick Flaherty.

Nick: After the Judicial Review, the council promised to recruit 22 staff to speed up the Education Health and Care process and to tackle the backlog of annual reviews of EHC Plans. We haven’t seen anything happening with that. What is happening now? And what is the plan to tackle the annual review backlog.

Jacqui Jensen (JJ): In terms of that question it’s a really interesting question. The Judicial Review, was an interesting time, interesting in its most interesting term. But you can imagine we were in a, I think it would be fair to say the organisation was in a kind of mix between paralysis and panic after the Judicial Review in June and going up to the Judicial Review.

We recognise what it took for parents to do that and we really didn’t want to make it any worse, we didn’t want to make it any worse for you. We tried really, really hard after that Judicial Review to respond. Loads of energy and resources went into that, trying to make sure we had the right legal paperwork and people were working on it, it was really a massive piece of work that was a bit of a detraction but we absolutely understand why it happened.

But the paralysis and the panic that I’m describing that happened after that meant that we didn’t really have a real focus on what needed to be done, not for the Judicial Review because that was a technical piece of consultation, but what it really needed to do to make the service what it needed to be for you, for your kids.

When we talked about the advice that was given to our Mayor, the advice that was given to our lead member Councillor Anna Keen, was 20, 22 staff, but there wasn’t any nuance around that, it was 22 caseworkers, we need to get these plans working.

And in reality, that would have just been a backlog in terms of educational psychology and in terms of social care assessments. And the other issue was there weren’t 20, 22 staff out there for us to recruit. So chasing those staff became a real problem because every Local Authority are also looking to be the best they can in terms of Send and they were looking for the same people that we were looking for and experienced caseworkers are not easy to find. So it became a real challenge.

The then Director of Education went and I was really lucky that Alan came in to work with us and Alan came in full time last November. And Alan was able to bring a much more experienced and formed and nuanced look at what did we need to do to be as good as we can be. And, part of that was looking at some of the policies we’d made and seeing firstly, was that actually what we needed and two, what else did we need?

Alan Stubbersfield and Jacqui Jensen Bristol
Alan Stubbersfield and Jacqui Jensen Bristol with Nick Flaherty of Bristol Parent Carers

One of the things we looked at straight away, Alan and I with Alan’s help, was to actually commission somebody to come in and tell us, where is the problem, because although you know what the problems are in terms of your experiences, in terms of our system, it needs to be a holistic look at how the system works and how we resource it and restructure it. So, it’s taken some time but we now have a consultant who really, really knows Send. We’ve had a report that enabled us, Alan, has done that enabled us to understand what the problem is.

There was other things we done during that time as well. So what we did do last year, we can agree a certain amount of money for the council, anything above that it needs to be done by councillors.

So within our delegation, so we put money into some increased social care capacity, we put £380,000 into casework. We’ve been trying to recruit those caseworkers. Just six we were trying to recruit since last November, took us ’til May to get them into post. And it took two rounds of recruitment for us to get six.

The other thing that Alan brought to the table was that we needed additional educational psychology at the time as well. So that there was a whole host of things that we needed, not just 20 caseworkers. So we could have in effect, went down a line of looking for something that we didn’t need and be spending money that we do need to spend somewhere else on something that wouldn’t have been helpful to you and wouldn’t have been helpful to us.

So strategically, we’re in a much, much, much better place and I can talk about that, Alan can talk about the technical details much, much better than me.

In terms of the strategic picture, I’ve got somebody that I really have confidence in who has an understanding of the landscape and who has been able to put together a strategic approach to how we want to invest our money.

The other thing that we’ve been able to do, again through our delegation, is two things. We’ve been able to put that structural strategic plan to our Cabinet and it’s going to Cabinet on the 02 July. But we have been able to start the recruitment for that within our delegation so that we can start the ball rolling and the anticipation that our wonderful councillors will sign off that report that coming to them on the 02 July to enable us to make a start on getting this service structure you need to have in place to enable your kids to get plans within the timescale that’s statutory compliant and better. 

So that’s the strategic bit that’s answering that question. But of course, we need to take responsibility for that and I’m sure your perhaps thinking that because at the end of the day, we should have had that knowledge and that strategic plan in place over a year ago and I can really only apologise to you for that. I’m sorry that it’s taken this time. I’m sorry that you are the people who are affected by it, and I am sorry from the bottom of my heart that this has impacted on you and your children.

Call from the floor: ‘Not good enough’.

I’m going to pass to Alan to just answer the technicalities around the backlog around the EHCP Plans

Alan Stubbersfield (AS): Thanks Jacqui and thanks Nick. I’ve had quite a build up there. I’ve been somebody who’s managed at director or assistant director level at SEND services for over 20 years so I’ve got a lot of experience in this area. It means to a degree that I can pick and choose where I work because I work freelance. That’s why I’m the temporary Director of Education.

I wanted to come to Bristol because we knew there was a problem, but what I also saw in talking to Jacqui and colleagues here was there was a real will to fix it and an openness to apologise and say ‘we need to work together to do this and get it right’.

Where I have been successful in getting things right in my time managing SEND, more than anything else or by tactical knowledge, is by listening to people. And what I do in my freelance role is come to places like Bristol and listen. I’ve listened to Nick, we’re here today to listen to you, we’re listening tonight, professional colleagues in education and in health and in social care to see if all together we can make it work.

And the plans that Jacqui has talked about to put a lot more money into this to put a lot more people at desks, people talking to you, people listening to you is a plan that I believe in and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think Bristol was committed to doing it.

On the technical side, what’s happened, the Judicial Review had an impact for everybody in this room, at the same time we had an 80 per cent increase in requests for statutory assessment. We did not have an 80 increase in the staff to deal with those and we all know the impact that has had.

What Jacqui has described is the way we have focused on that. In the past there was a focus on transitioning statements to plans at a cost to processing annual reviews, so the annual review backlog built up here because people were trying to focus on new assessments for example and those transitions. Bristol isn’t the only place where that’s happened but it’s reached a really serious point here. As well as the caseworkers who have been employed we have engaged freelance plan writers whose job is to run through those. We’re now doing workshops every week, we are performance managing that and we have a target of turning over 100 a week. We aim to have the backlog of annual reviews completed by the end of the year. So there’s a target, there’s a commitment, there’s I hope a transparency about our commitment to get this done.

We aim through the extra additional resources which Jacqui has talked about and the councillors’ decisions which will enable us to appoint more people to get to a steady state so that we are above national performance, the national performance for getting assessments done in 20 weeks is about 60 per cent. We are well below that at the moment. Two years’ ago we were well above, well above. We were 88 per cent. We can get there again and that is the real commitment to be what we call top quartile performance in other words in the top quarter of Local Authorities across the country, we’ve been there before, we can do it again.

Nick: Thank you very much for frank comments and thank you very much for the apology, I think there will be some questions as you had. I just wanted to follow up on the other issue of accountability really. We’re trying to get past the backlog. One of the questions that we hear all the time, how do we make sure that our children actually get that is specified in the EHC, because it’s one thing to say they need this, it’s another thing to deliver it. Who is going to be responsible because sometimes the schools, very often the schools aren’t delivering this. Should it be the caseworkers who are saying this is the provision? Where does the accountability sit?

AS Responds: It’s teamwork. The accountability of schools isn’t to me. Local Authorities don’t control schools either those which are maintained or those which are academies. What we do do is influence them and we set up systems so that schools work together with us and with you and with parent carers to make sure that accountability is there.

The national policy doesn’t really put that in place, I know that because I work in lots of places, similar questions come up. What we are keen to do is have the resource and it comes back again to the boots on the ground, to have the resource, to have the people, to work with schools and particularly to work with SendCos. So for us the accountability and in schools the accountability is very much with the SendCo. It’s a key role in the school. They had support in the past and the context of this of course is nationally a policy of austerity which meant that funding to councils has been reduced significantly and here we’re looking to buck the trend and put the resource back. That resource needs to support SendCos in schools because they need to have better networks to support each other like your networks supporting yourselves, SendCos needs the same.

We need educational psychologists, not just for doing statutory assessments that’s going to the EHCP, but also because of their professional training. They can contribute to what happens in the classroom in schools and SendCos can influence schools really effectively giving your children’s teachers the confidence and the skills so there are not high levels of exclusions, there are not high levels of absence from schools, there are not part timetables for children with special educational needs. We know all those things happen and we know they’re problems and those are indicators to us that we really need to change. We want fewer exclusions, we’ve done well with permanent exclusions but fixed term exclusions still happen and they need to reduce. Attendance needs to get better, timetables need to be full time.

All those things are to do with how the accountability with schools actually makes a difference so giving the confidence in schools through working with SendCos through the support plan that you’re talking about today that’s a benefit that already through joint work with Parent Carer Forum we’ve been able to move forward on. SendCos are eating that up with enthusiasm and the trials on that have been really good I think. So a toolkit for schools which gives practical help in schools helps them give confidence and then they can look me in the eye and say ‘yes I am accountable’. In law they don’t have to do that. But because we are putting together a culture and an atmosphere in partnership, that’s what we want to build that sense of. We look each other in the eye and say ‘this is me this is what I do’ hold me to account.

Questions from the floor – Due to the personal circumstances detailed in the questions, they are not reproduced here.

AS in response to a question about badly written EHC draft plans: Our processing has got to be to time but it’s no good if it’s not quality as well. We are putting in place quality standards for the production of EHCPs, that has been is one of the things I think that has been to a degree we need to balance with the speed of which processing is done.

Some of the things we have promised to do we have not done, others we have done. We have taken professional views not only about what was clearly a problem but what was less clear about the solution which I talked earlier about the solution being found in the mix of all this that’s now in proposals going to Cabinet rather than the 22 roles of the same kind in my view when I arrived here towards the end of last year that wasn’t going to solve the problem. It needed a more nuanced approach I think to get underneath the numbers to find out what the solution was really going to be.

We share a confidence that’s going to take place. Has that had an impact yet? Not enough. We’re starting to see the annual review backlog reducing, you have probably not seen a noticeable impact of that yet, the timescale I’ve talked about has been towards the end of the calendar year.

So no, not enough has been done, it may be too late, our undertaking is it’s not too little.

JJ Responds: You quite rightly pointed out there that we had a consultant in and we used money on that and we’ve took time to do that. We’re asking for quite a substantial investment from our councillors and it had to be evidenced. We have to put a good case together for our councillors to make a balanced judgement, because to make a judgement about that and they’ll have to take the money from somewhere else and so it’s right that we put the facts before them with a really strong evidence base and it’s not just a guess of what we need to do but is our best endeavours to give a rationale for that and we get one pop at that at this Cabinet. We can’t go back with a better report in three months’ time so I believe it was the right thing to do to spend the time making sure we were putting the best possible case.

JJ In response to a new question about non-existing ‘damaging’ services and compensation: (Laughs out loud) Well what can I say.

AS takes over: I think what we’ve heard there is an expression of how serious the problems have been and in some cases continue to be. We have not been here about a quick fix, the depth and breath is something which has been in the words I’ve just heard more than dysfunctional. We’re not here to deny that, we’re not here to say it’s easy or it’s simple. It is complex, we have I think understood the complexity, we’re understanding more of that today and we’re here to do the complicated things which will take time. We will be back or my successor will be back in a place like this to hear if you think it has worked over time during the rest of this year.

We have a number of complaints, some of those are resolved internally, the potential for some is to go either to Judicial Review, that has happened of course and we have some threats of that happening again although it has not people could go to the Ombudsman and have not. I probably know more about education law than other people in the room so I know what history there is around negligence in education law and there is as far as I know in all this time, thirty years I’ve been working in the field, only one case, known as the Phelps case which was again an education psychologist many years ago and that the precedent bore a very high bar for any successful claim.

All I can say from what I know of the law I would not expect that. But that doesn’t mean I don’t expect the people having the experiences you’re having will be dissatisfied will feel that they want to complain and we must respond to those.

AS In response to a new question about EHCP statutory time frames and value for money:

Start stop occurring between questioner and AS

AS Responds: In my view the 20 was not the right answer so whilst the Mayor was entitled to rely on the officer advice he had last year, the officer advice to members has changed through me. I’m responsible for that. I said that five minutes ago. I do not think that 20 caseworkers was going to solve all the problems. It needed a range of things so the money we are expecting to be committing to solving this problem is much more than the cost of 20 caseworkers. It involves educational psychologists who happen to be very expensive, but happen to be very skilled and very important in the assessment process, social workers and so on and so on. So the outcome in the end is a greater commitment of resource – question from the floor ‘why is it taking so long?’

AS Responds: Because in the beginning you had the wrong answer and in the end you got the right one.

Questioner asks what’s taking so long and asks for action:

JJ Takes Over: Let me tell you what’s been happening during that time. We got £380,000 last October/November to recruit and we went out to recruit the first six. That process has been in place, there’s been two recruitment opportunities to try and do that and by January, we had people recruited.

It then took ’til May for them to leave wherever they were working and come into post so it was a long, drawn out process and it is a long, drawn out process. It was really, really hard to get that six. Really hard to get that six. You can see that from the process November to May to get them in that post just how long and how difficult that was.

So even if we had have needed 20 and six is now where we’re ending up, I think the total establishment of caseworkers is what, 18 or 19 I think.

During that time We’ve done work on the evidence base of the resource ask we’ve put to Cabinet. That has took months. We’ve done work on getting multidisciplinary staff together to look at how bad transition is and how we can make that better to work with the problems there so we’ve done an awful lot of work and we’ve just come to the point where we’re going to consult with the parent forum around a model for our improved transition service which will hopefully go live sometime in September.

We’ve done work on a Capital Plan for SEN in schools to look at how we invest capital so that the school experience for kids is better. We’ve done three sizeable pieces of work looking at how we put a really good net under this, how can we strategically improve as well as recruitment to the post we are recruiting.

We haven’t stood still, so at the moment even though we are waiting for that Cabinet report to be agreed, we’ve started the recruitment that we’re asking for the funding for. That will take some months to get them into post but we’ve made a start on that. So we haven’t stood still since September.

The difference has been as a new DCS coming into post last year, is that by having Alan coming into post I had somebody that actually knew what he was talking about and from that strategic point of view brought experience from other Local Authorities to bear and he could do the work to get us to where he needed to get to. And that’s been the big, big difference to us. Has he been value for money? Absolutely. He has been value for money. As far as my post is concerned, I’m responsible for adult services, education services, children’s services, public health services and community safety services in Bristol. I think my portfolio’s OK.

Questioner Responds: Yeah I think it’s quite wide isn’t it?

JJ responds: It is quite wide and there are benefits in that.

Questioner replies with query about how 6 caseworkers will get through 100 annual reviews per week:

JJ responds: So as I said, the team of casework, that was additional posts, we already had an existing team of established caseworkers.

Questioner: You’ve not been doing annual reviews for the past two years.

JJ Responds: Right and there are plan writers, more plan writers been appointed and that team of people who are going through the annual reviews are including other people in the department like Alan. So we’re bringing a whole group of people together to help us round these annual reviews.

New Questioner voices concerns about the skill at school level and paying for private ed psych reports:

AS Responds: You mentioned psychology. We know that parents in some cases have commissioned their own psychologist because there’s a waiting list for the Local Authority’s psychology advice. We’ve been keen to really hit that and see the increase in educational psychologists as a critical point. Parents aren’t in a position you’ve been placed in and on top of that was have educational psychologists not simply doing statutory work but working with schools to address the other question you raised.

Questioner interrupts without mic.

AS Responds: The top up funding has been part of that. The Inclusion in Education Group (IEG) which is composed of teachers from schools, SendCos from schools and chaired by a deputy head from a Bristol school has been working on the Bristol Support Plan that’s been trialled in schools with SendCos, working together, sharing problems, sharing learning and supported by educational psychology already because we have already increased psychology resource within the delegated responsibilities that we’re allowed to do. It’s one of those things that doesn’t change as quickly as we would like. We’re absolutely in our view SEND strategy aiming to support early intervention and the skills for schools and other settings to work on that. So there’s confidence in schools, there’s a tool kit available, various tool kits available and support from the autism service and so on to address the points. And I have to say again, when colleagues of ours come back in six months or whatever to talk to you, we should be able to talk about the difference that makes and listen to what difference you think that’s making.

New Questioner talks about ‘wishy washy nonsense that has to stop’ and describes serious failings with Bristol Home School transport.

AS Responds: And we’d agree that things like that have to stop, there’s no disagreement about that. What I said to School’s Forum last time was incorrect because the report I was reading from was incorrect as it happens. There has not been a cut to the number of psychologists, there had been other cuts and the report I was reading from was confused it will be corrected at the next School’s Forum meeting.

Nick F intervenes to check this will be amended in the next Bristol School’s Forum minutes which ‘is a place of record’.

New Questioner asks who is accountable for her child’s ‘bad cut and paste EHCP’:

AS Responds: You’d ask for an early annual review as a meeting, in a school with yourself to look at what’s not working. Who is accountable we talked about that before, the national system doesn’t make that clear.

Questioner interrupts explaining they can’t even make sense of it with the SendCo.

AS Responds: And the quality as well as the time limit is one of the things we’ll be looking at. I’m sorry yours doesn’t seem to be working for you.

Questioner interrupts ‘It’s not quantified, it’s not specified’.

AS Responds: I am accountable for the EHCP because it’s within my…

Questioner interrupts ‘it’s just white noise we’re hearing from you it’s not good enough.

Nick F moves discussion on

New Questioner talks about EHCP difficulties. Nobody returns her calls:

AS responds: So there’s people dissatisfied as I’ve heard in a number of cases here. Dissatisfied with quality. What you’ve just heard me say is that is a function of my (end of sentence inaudible).

In the first place, you would go to a SendCo if you can find one. Yours is on maternity and I’ve heard somebody else say theirs was hiding. I’m recognising that you’re having problems finding your SendCos, most of you shouldn’t. Either to the SendCo, if it’s within the school, if not to the SendCo then to the headteacher, if not to the headteacher then the chair of governors, through the council, to your caseworker.

Questioner interrupts ‘I’ve been through all that process’.

AS responds: So the principle is is that where something’s not working you go to the next level up, to the manager of the SEND team, in the end to me.

Questioner interrupts explaining that parents and carers don’t have the time because their focus is on their disabled child.

JJ responds: Can I just speak absolutely honestly. You’re telling me about your experiences which have been horrendous and the whole fact of the work that we’ve had to do to get the evidence based proof before our councillors, the work we’ve had to do on re looking at our transition team that will work effectively, the work that we’ve had to do to look what at the Capital Strategy is for our special schools and our SEN provision is because we know this is bad for you.

The honest answer is it’s not going to get any better the next few months.

General interruption from the floor

JJ Interrupts: Please, I’m just really trying to be honest. It’s not going to get any better until we can get the posts that we’re recruiting for and that there’s enough space and time for people to do their job properly. For you to get good quality responses, for you to get good quality reviews.

And I could come here and give you platitudes and I really, really didn’t want to do that. I won’t insult your intelligence by that, or your experience.

The reality is we know that this is broken, we’re trying our best to fix it. We’re trying to get the amount of money which is absolutely huge to make it better. And we’re doing the best…

Interruption from the floor about how it will benefit future children but not children right now.

JJ Responds: No we want it better for your kids now.

Questioner responds about her child’s plan.

JJ Responds: That won’t be the last look your child will get at that plan.

Questioner responds about having no secondary school in place.

Nick F halts the session with the recommendation to use Bristol SENDIAS service Supportive Parents.

New Questioner talks about EHCP delays and disability discrimination by a Bristol school SendCo:

AS Responds: 25 years ago, I was a complaining parent who moved his son from a school to another school out of a lack of concern. Up to that point I’d always, from my professional point of view said ‘never do that, it’s always to be solved in school’. With your own family, I found that really, really difficult. So I’ve had some of that experience myself.

We talked earlier on today about SendCos and the position they’re in actually and we talked too about the difficulty recruiting two posts, specialist posts in the Local Authority.

Schools have the same issues and headteachers say to me ‘it’s hard to recruit SendCos’. So that’s part of what we’re trying to fix and the better support for SendCos that we want to put in place, we’re intending to put in place should be (muffled sound) to address the problems you’ve described and some other parent carers here who also talked about the confident skill levels and the quality of responses they get from schools, not because they don’t care, maybe they don’t have the skills, maybe they don’t have the confidence, maybe they feel pressurised. We need to get under all that and provide better support absolutely.

Session Ends

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