Bristol City Council’s Written Statement of Action has many words but holds little hope of improved accountability
The plan mixes ambition with the wishy washy and lacks the bite parent carers need to improve Send from their perspective
– All co-production and accountability will come through Bristol Parent Carers
– The council will make sure there are enough special school places by July 2020
– At least 50 per cent of Bristol SendCos will have SEMH training – because apparently they don’t
– Educational Psychologist reports will all be on time by November 2020
– All 2020 EHCP backlog will be cleared by November 2020
– By July 2020 there will be new guidance for zero tolerance school policies affecting Send children and young people
WSoA – Written Statement of Action
Send – Special Educational Needs andor Disabilities
EHCP – Education Health and Care Plan
Bristol City Council has finally published its Written Statement of Action (WSoA) to address Send weaknesses in the city. Following a local area Send inspection by Ofsted and the CQC in October 2019, weaknesses in several key areas were identified, forcing the council to put together a plan about how it was going to address them.
The original inspection took place between 30 September and 04 October 2019, with purdah from the general election holding up the publication of the inspection report until the end of December.
The council worked with health and education partners including NHS Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group (BNSSG CCG) as well as running several events for parents and carers to have their say. The final plan was approved by Ofsted and published online this week.
The 38 page report, which City Hall insiders have told us has been vastly reduced in size, tackles the five areas of ‘significant weakness’ uncovered during the Send inspection.
Writing on behalf of Ofsted and the CQC, HMI Bradley Simmons said: ‘You recognise the very low starting point of the local area. You identify in your plan that you will need two years to achieve your ambitions and ensure that every child and young person identified with a special educational need and/or disability receives the support they need.’
The five areas of ‘significant weakness’ uncovered at Bristol City Council were:
The lack of accountability of leaders at all levels, including school leaders
The inconsistencies in the timeliness and effectiveness of the local area’s arrangements for the identification and assessment of children and young people with SEND
The dysfunctional EHC plan process, and inadequate quality of EHC plans
The underachievement and lack of inclusion of children and young people with SEND, including the high rates of persistent absenteeism and fixed-term exclusions
The fractured relationships with parents and carers, lack of co-production and variable engagement and collaboration.
Executive Director for People Jacqui Jensen, along with Julia Ross from BNSSG CCG, penned the opening introduction of the WSoA saying: ‘The local area will have a full re-visit about 18 months after the inspection to see how effectively local leaders have addressed the serious weaknesses set out below. Given our low starting point, we know it will take longer than 18 months to fully achieve our ambitions and meet our obligations under the Send Code of Practice in both issuing EHCPs and completing annual reviews.’
Papers to Cabinet at City Hall for Tuesday 28 April 2020, shows council performance continues to lag well below target. During the third quarter from October to December 2019, of the 172 EHCPs finalised, just two were within the legal 20 week deadline. Notes on the paper say that this is a ‘clear quarterly improvement in the total number of plans issued’ comparing this to 49 plans in quarter one – none of which were completed within deadline either.
The council has also stopped its method of confusing scrutiny panels with cumulative statistics over the entire year when being questioned about specific quarterly performance. This was an issue raised at People Scrutiny Commission in 2019, when it was discovered by councillors that the number of finalised EHCPs was being presented as a quarterly statistic instead when it was really the statistic covering the entire year.
Cabinet papers also say that the number of plans issued in 2019 is ‘significantly higher’ than previous years. More than 400 plans were finalised during the entire year compared to less than 200 in 2017 and 2018. As well as an increase in the number of staff members in the Bristol SEN team, it has also been ‘restructured and refocused’ with a ‘discreet team’ managing the initial assessments. Additional Educational Psychologists won’t be starting until September 2020, with Assistant Psychologists and agency staff drafted in to cover the ‘present shortfall’.
Director for Education and Skills, Alison Hurley said that the council is working on ways to keep its planned programme of ‘co-production opportunities’ going in the ‘short- term’ due to COVID-19. This includes ‘strengthening capacity’ to ‘minimise’ the impact of staff absence and using virtual technology to ‘support families’.
She said: “Now with Ofsted and CQC approval of our Written Statement of Action, we are embarking on our improvement journey with what we believe is realistically achievable. Given our very low starting point, we know that it will take longer than 18 months to fully achieve our ambitions and meet our obligations under the SEND Code of Practice in terms of issuing EHCPs and completing annual reviews, as well as gaining parental trust and confidence in the SEND system. However, our aspiration is far greater than many of the targets set out in the document, and our plans will reflect this.”
Cabinet Lead Member for Education and Skills, Councillor Anna Keen also said that current issues in Send – including EHCP process delays – have built up over a ‘long period of time’.
She said: “However, we have been working at pace to improve SEND, including significantly increasing the size of our SEND team to improve EHCP timescales, which we know have a significant impact on families with SEND.
“It was important to us to co-produce the Written Statement of Action with parents and carers. It means we now have a roadmap for tackling each of the areas highlighted by Ofsted and the CQC in depth alongside our partners in health and schools, which will help us deliver the improvements we know our families with SEND want to see.”
The priority areas that need improvement and addressed in the WSoA will have ‘operational oversight’ by the SEND Partnership Group (SPG) with overall progress monitored by the SEN Improvement Board (SIP).
We’ve submitted a Freedom of Information request to Bristol City Council concerning the WSoA asking who sits on both of these groups. Bristol City Council and the Bristol Mayoral Office are big fans of ‘influential city leaders’ who sit on many of the same boards and whose influencing at times seems vastly superior to their improving ability.
We’ve also asked for extended versions of the plan not released and all communications between the Bristol Parent Carer Forum (BPC) and Bristol City Council, to look further into the co-production between the council and Bristol’s parent carers.
Unfortunately, Bristol City Council has a history of not responding to Send questions. We still have one outstanding from February 2020 and ones we submitted last year were returned unanswered saying it was too expensive to do so – despite some of the information requested appearing in subsequent Bristol Schools Forum papers.
The SPG meets ‘four weekly’ according to the WSoA and is co-chaired by the Service Director Education and Skills and Director of Transformation, Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire CCG. It is responsible for ‘driving the actions’ in the WSoA and making sure there are task and finish groups to work on specific areas where necessary.
It is held accountable for its ‘progress and impact’ by the SIP and CCG which will monitor it through bimonthly multi-agency meetings.
The council states its vision and values for Bristol Send children in the WsoA with quotes from its Bristol’s Strategy and Vision for Children and Young People with Send 2019-2022. These say: ‘We will support and empower disabled children and young people and those with special educational needs to reach their full potential and have healthy, independent and fulfilling lives.’
Last year, the year the strategy starts from, wasn’t a great year for Bristol Send, with disabled children certainly not supported or empowered. Jacqui Jensen and Interim Director of Education Alan Stubbersfield faced difficult questions from upset parents in the June 2019 Bristol Parent Carers’ Annual Participation event.
The pair claimed that additional capacity of 20 SEN caseworkers in the Bristol SEN team was not necessary. EHCPs were taking around a year to be completed and even Councillor Anna Keen admitted in July Cabinet that Bristol’s Send failings ran deeper than the lack of funding from central government. Bristol Send parents came together throughout the year to challenge the serious issues going on via Bristol Independent Send Community – now called Bristol Send Justice.
It wasn’t until the autumn of 2019 that Send began to show the first signs of some initial strategic direction with the start of new permanent Director of Education and Skills Alison Hurley. She has claimed in various council meetings that so many ‘pieces of work need to be done’ that it’s a wonder what has been going on during the last ten years. The first thing to happen was the recruitment of 20 new SEN caseworkers that Stubbersfield and Jensen clearly argued four months earlier were not needed.
The council claims its ‘values’ will underpin the work it will do across the city with the WSoA. It refers to its values as ‘Inclusion and independence’, ‘Respect’, ‘Care’, and ‘Equality’. Alongside each is a vague statement such as: ‘We believe in treating children and young people and their parents and carers, with value and respect’.
In a What We Are Aiming to Achieve section, the council sets out a series of outcomes from its Shared Outcomes Framework. The top one includes statements: ‘Better understand Bristol’s communities and their needs, so we can reach out and communicate more effectively with all parents and carers and young people, establishing genuine co-production and consistently purposeful engagement and collaboration.’
Another says: ‘Ensure that children and young people with disabilities and those with special educational needs can access their full entitlement to a good education, feel included, make progress and achieve their full potential’. These are basic things that should already be happening.
Since the inspection, the council says it has also increased the SEN casework team and educational psychology capacity. It says it is working with and listening to parents and carers to the WSoA reflects their ‘needs and wants’. It’s co designing and launching bi-annual Send surveys to gauge improvement and will work with schools and school leaders to ‘secure engagement with the inspection outcomes’.
What the report also does is align itself with the Bristol One City Plan (OCP), a plan launched by Bristol mayor Marvin Rees in 2019, which brings together public, private, voluntary and third sector partner sectors in the city to make Bristol a ‘fair, healthy and sustainable city’.
The plan is met with constant ridicule on social media for its Utopian vision that lacks any form of strategy and sets out a series of wishes to be achieved by arbitrary dates. It is now a ‘linked’ programme with the WSoA as one of the ‘vehicles for Change’.
Under the OCP Learning and Skills section in the WSoA, the council echoes: ‘school engagement and attendance has improved, as has the development of young people’s life skills’. It also says: ‘Improved support for children with Special Educational Needs and Looked after children.’ And: ‘Improved post 16 and lifelong learning offer developed with clear learning, employment and skills pathways.’
Some of the corresponding ‘goals’ on the OCP with the dates these goals will be achieved by are:
Goal 107 Year: 2025, ‘Inclusion and school attendance rates will be on track to be in line with the 10% best performing local authorities by 2028.’
Goal 71 Year: 2023. ‘Outcomes for Bristol’s children and young people, particularly from disadvantaged and BAME communities and those with SEN, will see significant improvements at the end of each educational phase and be on-track to ensure all children achieve effective learning outcomes by 2030.
So a little longer than the 18 months the council has to start turning Send improvement around. If you like non-specific statements in pictorial form, one has been included. This picture formed the first draft of Bristol Education Transformation Programme, presented to Bristol Schools Forum and resulted in painfully embarrassing feedback to Jacqui Jensen over its lack of substance, buzzwords, no strategy or funding.
Each Improvement Priority in the WSoA is then tackled in more depth. The priority is broken down into what it is, outcomes the council is aiming to achieve, impact measures and a progress action tracker for each action. Is is very much like its own EHCP, though hopefully it will be processed in a more timely manner.
The first four priority areas go into depth, running in at 6 or 7 pages per priority area. Only one priority area barely manages more than two pages. That is the priority area tackling the fractured relationship with parents and carers, the lack of co-production and collaboration.
In this section, things parent carers should be aware of includes a series of workshops with senior officers against the ‘quality indicators for co-production’ in July this year. Also taking place is a forward programme of activities and events to be agreed with Bristol Parent Carers.
Groups of young people and their parents or carers will also be working on making sure the Local Offer website is up-to-date, accessible and useful.
In March 2021, the results of the two Send surveys will be discussed and reviewed with parent carers before the third one launches. July 2021 will see the results of all three turned into a You Said We Did report to be published against the WSoA.
The Priority 5 area says it’s going to work with Bristol Parent Carers in co-production. But, it does not explain how this format is going to be accessible. Parent carers have reported to us that they do not have the opportunity to attend the vital meetings because they take place during the working week. Some cannot access or afford to access the location of the meeting. Some have issues with childcare or difficulties relating to their caring role, off rolled school children or children not in education during the day due to unmet Send needs.
Improvement Priority 1 is all about the accountability of the system. This is where ‘leaders at all levels, including school leaders’ can be held accountable. This will be done by the council establishing ‘a robust evidence based performance culture across SEND services to reflect the principles of the SEND Code of Practice by active leadership, visible across the partnership and engaged with by all stakeholders, including school leaders.’
If that’s not entirely clear, the next bit may help:’Membership and Terms of Reference of existing governing and decision making groups co-reviewed with Bristol Parent Carers and other stakeholders to strengthen leadership and challenge and hold leaders (including school leaders) to account for performance and impact on outcomes’. Any clearer?
Much of the report will make excellent additions to Send Meeting Bingo. It is a celebration of both buzzwords and the vague, but there are some things amongst the blah that parents and carers should be looking out for.
The non-statutory Bristol Send Support Plan is being given a push. This is a document that is somewhere between the old Individual Education Plans and EHCPs. Except, the contents are not legally enforceable and there is a real danger these could be used as a delaying tactic towards getting an EHCP.
By November 2020, the council is aiming for Bristol schools to be using the Bristol Support Plan in ‘increased numbers’. But, it’s always important to remember that this document was developed by the group who recommended the cuts to the High Needs Budget ruled unlawful in 2018. By March 2021, 50 per cent of needs assessments requested by schools will be submitting a Bristol Support Plan as part of their evidence.
By March 2021, the aim is to have 50 per cent of all Bristol SendCos to have participated in training around the identification and assessment of Social Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs. Maybe assuming that SendCos already have this training to be able to do their job effectively is naive, but would explain why some mainstream schools in the city are so inept when it comes to this area of Send.
When it comes to accessing community paediatricians, by July 2021, the aim is for 92 per cent of referrals to be seen within 18 weeks. Does this mean Sirona is no longer running the service? With a current 18 month wait between 3 month follow-up appointments with community paediatricians, this aim is high.
The ‘dysfunctional’ EHCP process continues to be ‘dysfunctional’. We’re hearing that parents are still hitting the high week forties before plans are being finalised. Not forgetting that the council tried to stop needs assessment requests being put in before Christmas. And, the council unlawfully tried to stop processing needs assessment requests as soon as COVID- 19 forced lockdown in the UK. Both incidents were successfully challenged by parents and carers in Bristol Send Justice.
A new ‘improved person centred’ EHCP template will be co-produced with parents and carers this year. This will be tested and refined by July 2020 and officially launched by November.
By November 2020, 100 per cent of educational psychologist reports will be on time. In another highly ambitious target, the backlog of statutory assessments that were out of time in January 2020 will be cleared by November.
Also by November, SEN staff retention will be high and sickness absence levels ‘reduced significantly’, suggesting it was probably not the calmest and happiest environment to work in.
By March 2021, the EHCP timeliness will be ‘at least’ the average of Bristol’s statistical neighbours.
A new process will be put in place to improve the annual review process, with the pilot process launching in some schools by March next year.
It won’t be until July 2020 that new guidance will be developed and shared with health, social care and education settings to offer alternatives to ‘binary/zero tolerance behaviour polices in schools and settings.’
By November 2020, there will be a ‘significant increase’ in the number of places available in specialist provisions. This will be when a review of the effectiveness of resource bases and alternative provision is done.
By July 2020, there will be a ‘forecast demand’ to make sure there is ‘sufficient provision’ to meet need. This means by July, the council will ensure there are enough school and resource base places to meet needs.
Bristol City Council has 18 months from the initial Ofsted and CQC meeting to make improvements before the city has a re-inspection.
Clearly, the state of Send in Bristol is so bad it’s going to take years before it will at least meet the same level as its statistical neighbours. What is worrying about the WSoA is that accountability, improvement and feedback will only come through one direction – the city’s parent carer forum. Although the council has finally put in plans to work directly with Bristol’s BAME community – most likely based on the endless campaigning by Autism Independence founder Nura Abe – it should not be assumed that all the other parents feel represented by the city’s parent carer forum. A Piece of Work that quickly needs to be Done is to find out how representative this process is and if all the city’s areas and communities are able to access and engage with co-production using this method. Otherwise, nothing will change and the fractured relationship between the council and the parents and carers of Send children and young people will only grow.
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