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Bristol City Council Send Bankruptcy Claims Despite Not Being on Safety Valve

  • Bristol City Council Send Bankruptcy Claims in Bristol Schools Forum, although the Local Authority is not on the Department for Education’s Safety Valve programme for LAs facing bankruptcy over Send budgets
  • Confirmation that non statutory top up funding, post 16 funding and funding for specialist school places likely up for consultation

Bristol City Council has been lamenting being on the road to bankruptcy due to an overspend on provision for special educational needs and disabilities (Send) despite not being on the Department for Education’s programme for local authorities facing bankruptcy over Send.

The comment was made in May’s Bristol Schools Forum, which led to discussion around a forthcoming public consultation over how changes might be made to how Send pupils in Bristol would be funded in the future.

The comment was made by finance officer Angel Lai, during a presentation on the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG), describing the issue as ‘severe’.

The DSG is ring fenced funding from central Government divided into four blocks and used to fund schools and services for pupils.

The high needs block is where funding for Send comes from and has seen escalating costs for some years.

Bristol City Council is now saying that these escalating costs are likely to cause the council to face bankruptcy.

Lai told the forum: “The risk to the local authority is that we we don’t turn the financial position around and we can’t afford it – because we don’t have the reserves to cover the overspend as it is, let alone if the position keeps on deteriorating. So it’s a huge financial risk to the local authority.’

Continuing she said: “Do nothing is not an option. If we do nothing at all, let it carry on when the statutory instrument ends, the local council will run out of money. And if you run out of money – bankruptcy.”

A statutory instrument is made in parliament allowing local authorities to carry a time-limited deficit on their Dedicated Schools Grant – which the High Needs Block is part of. Bristol’s statutory instrument was due to end in March, but has been extended for a further three years whilst the council works on targeting the deficit.

Bristol City Council was one of 55 local authorities selected to take part in the Department for Education’s Delivering Better Value (DVB) in Send programme. It received just over £1m to facilitate the council to get to grips with making its high needs budget sustainable.

The council has not been selected to take part in the DfE’s Safety Valve. This is funding which went to local authorities with the highest overspends on their high needs Block. This allowed those local authorities access to money to plug their budget holes in exchange for sweeping Send reforms in their area.

In a bid to tackle the growing deficit, potential cuts to non statutory top up funding as well as clawing money back from spending on places at specialist provisions has been touted since January this year.

Interim Director of Education, Reena Bhogal-Welsh told forum that they looking to procure a partner independent of the local authority to do the work, which will look at post-16 funding as well as the non-statutory top up funding and special schools funding.

Bhogal-Welsh said: “Obviously this is incredibly important. It’s also incredibly emotive as well as being political and I think it would be remiss of me not to say this is why we’re trying to procure a partner, because this isn’t a local Authority taking any form of judgment around it. It is about ensuring that we are scoping what our options look like, identifying those options and then going out to consultation. And recognizing that that six to eight week window of consultation is key because we need to hear what Bristolians are saying, what families are saying, what colleagues are saying.

“And then it will be at that point where we will be able to make that informed judgment about what do we need to do in order to have that significant impact on the deficit? And of course it will be then that we will go back out and say well as a result of the consultation and the work completed by the independent partner, this is what we will be doing to reduce that deficit and this is what it will look like, this is how you will feel it in terms of impact. This is how families will feel it and this is what it will look like for the children and the young people which needs to be at the forefront.”

Bhogal-Welsh added: “It’s not an option simply to remove non statutory funding because what we’ve seen with other local authorities is when they’ve chosen to do that, their EHCP requests, their assessments and their actual paperwork around EHCs has shot up. That tells us that we’ve got a disproportionality in terms of what that picture is looking like with our EHCs. So we’ve got to get this right for our children and young people as well as our families as well as provisions that are putting that education in place for them.”

Non statutory top up funding is additional funding given to schools for pupils who need extra support with their learning. This usually comes with completion by schools of non statutory Bristol Support Plans, which has caused some consternation in the Send community for replacing a needed EHCP.

Director of Finance, Denise Murray said: “Whilst we recognize it’s a national issue Bristol’s DSG deficit is a local issue and it’s one that we must own as Bristol City Council but also as schools forum and the community more broadly. Because it’s an issue that we must find a resolution to and we must resolve. So I think recognizing that ownership is a key starting point to that that road to recovery.”

Bhogal-Welsh told forum that the council were looking for a procurement partner that would generate ‘forensic and granular’ options, whilst ‘appreciating and hearing the families and voices of Bristol.

She said: “This is an incredibly sensitive issue and rightly so. but we also need to recognize that financially we cannot continue in the position that we are in, therefore we need someone who is finely balanced refined and forensic.”

Head of New Fosseway School, Tonya Hill said: “In regards to the planning, you’ve talked about the fact that this is going to be quite difficult. Is part of the planning then working around supporting families and schools around understanding that actually there’s going to be some hard times ahead and how do we ensure you’ve got all that partnership working, because this will be – as you said – very very emotive, but at the end of the day we’re talking bankruptcy so that there has to be some kind of give and take.”

Bhogal-Welsh said that the Bristol Parent Carer Forum had seen their ‘official title’ returned after losing their funding from the Department for Education in the wake of a Send spying scandal to hit City Hall last year. This meant the forum will be a ‘good touch point’ for the local authority when the options generated by the procurement partner need to be co-produced and how those can be communicated ‘really clearly’ with families. The forum would be used as a ‘critical friend’ to check the suitability of ideas.

As well as the forum, other ‘key’ groups would be brought in including the Excellence in Schools group and the Head Teachers’ Briefings.

Bhogal-Welsh said: ‘I think it’s utilizing all of those different forums to ensure that the messaging is clear and it’s not hidden behind some jargon that we have in place, because that can be really difficult for families to try and decipher.’

Fishponds Academy governor, Trish Dodds added fears over the recent inconsistency of leadership in the city, which sees Bristol on its fourth Director of Education since 2020.

Since 2020, the city has had interim director Alan Stubbersfield, the permanent Alison Hurley, the interim Richard Hanks and now interim Reena Bhogal-Welsh.

In terms of Executive Directors managing the education portfolio, Bristol is now on its third in the same time period, having seen Jacqui Jensen, Hugh Evans and now Abi Gbago in post.

And Cabinet leads for education who have come, gone or been interim include Anna Keen, Helen Godwin, Marvin Rees and currently, Asher Craig.

Dodds said: “One of the issues that we have in Bristol it had inconsistent leadership for many years and then different leaders bring in a different take on things some key people have left Bristol and what Bristol needs because of the complexity of our schools this consistency and it would be really good to see that we had consistency in the leadership of Education Bristol

Chair of Bristol Schools Forum, Simon Eakins said: “It’s hard to argue with that. It’s difficult isn’t if? It’s not necessarily the fault of anyone who’s here and we wish Reena and Abi Gbago long tenures.”

Although Bhogal-Welsh’s job is currently being advertised on the Bristol City Council recruitment site.

Dodds added: “I believe Reena you are still interim and we go around talking about different projects that come back recycled in different names when different people have come over the last five years. Bristol is a great place and it’s a great place for education and our children deserve the best and they need consistency of approach.”

The issue of potential cuts to non-statutory top up funding and special school placements was raised in Bristol Schools Forum back in January 2023.

In that meeting Councillor Asher Craig, Deputy Mayor with responsibility for Children’s Services, Education and Equalities said: “What’s the council going to do particularly in relation to the non-statutory top up funding? I think before any final decision is made on what we do or don’t do we need, I need to know is the extra money that we have been paying out, what difference is it actually making? We still got a huge uphill task I think around the parental confidence in the mainstream provision.

“When I’m talking to parents with children with special educational needs, because of their experiences in some schools they’re all just like running towards the specialist provision.

“I have always been of the view I would like to take maybe half of that funding that we are giving to a specialist providers and transfer that money and put that money into the mainstream School sector. But there are really good areas of good practice I think and this isn’t something that’s going to resolve itself overnight.

“We have to bring our parents with us and kind of raise that confidence and work with you all as schools to look at what is required? What do you need to be able to deliver a much more inclusive provision for our SEN children.”

” I said it at the last meeting we are one of very few local authorities who still provide this. Given our financial challenges I also have to consider is if it’s making a difference and it’s a positive difference then yeah there’s an argument to keep. But if if it isn’t we need to have a conversation about how how we’re going to manage this so it’s not no and it’s not yes. It’s wait and see. I just need more of the detail about what’s happening with that that Top-Up and what impact it’s making but like I said, I just wanna I I want to see the spend going a completely different way and put more money into to mainstream provision.”

We asked Cabinet in January for a response to Craig’s statement regarding taking half the funding given to specialist providers to move it into mainstream provision.

In response, Cabinet said: ‘There has been no decision to cut top up funding in either 2023/24 or 2024/25. Top up funding has been identified as one of the potential mitigation areas to be explored as part of the DSG management plan. Given the scale of deficit in High Needs Block, the Council has been
proactively engaging with Department of Education (DfE) and participated in the DfE run DBV programme. The aim of this DBV programme is to identify
sustainable changes in each LA that can drive high quality outcomes for children and young people with SEND.’

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