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Bristol Education Lead Re-Writes History with Festive Blog Post

A festive blog of education cheer from Cabinet lead for education Asher Craig, popped up on Mayor Marvin Rees’ website on 23 December 2022. In a baffling attempt to rewrite Bristol education history, Craig wrote: ‘As a local authority we recognised that our city needed more specialist provision places back in 2021, and we made the decision to set this work in motion, making a Mayoral pledge to create 450 new, specialist provision places within three years.’

However, it’s usually a good idea when you’re an education lead and talking about Local Authority failures – which have plagued hundreds of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) in Bristol – not to rewrite the facts.

The truth is, the crisis in specialist school places in Bristol was predicted as far back as 2011. If the Local Authority thought they ‘recognised’ that there was a lack of specialist places for Send pupils in Bristol just shy of a year ago, then it was a deliberate strategy of not listening. Or, overlooking a failure to act from 2016 when Marvin Rees took office.


Papers to Cabinet in 2011, proposed a School Organisation Strategy. This included Send, identifying that an increase of autistic pupils meant that provision needed to match ‘changing SEN needs.’

Papers say: ‘There has been a significant increase in the numbers of children and young people with medical diagnosis of autism (ASD) and Severe Language an
Communication Needs (SLCN)…

‘The situation is compounded by the lack of specialist ASD provision in the East Central Extended School Partnership (ESP) Area.’


The ensuing draft School Organisation Strategy 2012 – 2016, clearly showed that the population of autistic pupils was the ‘largest growth area within SEN’

The strategy said: ‘Demand currently outstrips existing specialist provision and there is an urgent need to address this for September 2013 across all age phases to ensure that there is suitable and sufficient provision made within the city to meet the demand and parental preference.’

Concluding the Send area of the strategy: ‘For pupils who require specialist provision, additional numbers are likely to exceed more than 201 places (28 additional classes) by 2017. As special schools are smaller than their mainstream equivalents, this represents the need for at least two additional special schools, or alternatives to be developed.’


The Integrated Education & Capital Strategy (2015-2019) published under former Mayor George Ferguson, had a chilling message regarding the future availability of specialist school places. Under a Needs Analysis the strategy said: ‘As a result the current ‘maintained’ capacity is already full and by 2019 there is a projected shortfall of 128 specialist places (12 per cent) across all need types and ages.’

The 2019 shortfall was expected to equate to around 18 classes of children.

The strategy again raised the issue of shortfalls in the East Central areas of the city.

The report – Meeting the Needs of ‘Pushed Out Learners – Education for Students with Additional Social and Emotional Needs, from September 2015 was laying out the growing crisis of Alternative Learning Provision in Bristol as well as extremely high levels of Permanent Exclusions (PEX).

At the time of publication, there had been 90 PEX in the city, an extraordinary amount, which report authors say ‘There has been a financial incentive to schools to permanently exclude pupils, who then become the local authority’s responsibility with no cost to the school.’

The growing use of ALP as a mop-up job for long-term failure to provide specialist school places saw Bristol become the highest user of ALP outside of London by 2019.

Alternative Provision Bristol
The issue raised in Bristol Schools Forum in April 2019

2016 – 17

If all this had escaped the notice of Bristol’s forthcoming ‘influential leaders’, Bristol’s JSNA Chapter 2016-17 Children’s Social Communication and Interaction Needs in Bristol, looked at what was on the horizon.

With a growing child population in Bristol and ‘increasing diagnoses of autism, this said: ‘Schools are feeling particularly stretched by this increase’ referring to the Education Capital Strategy which also covered this period.

A new autism Free School – Venturers Academy – from MAT Venturers Trust, was opened in 2016. Whilst it has expanded between several sites between opening and 2022, the school does not offer GCSEs to pupils, limiting pupils’ options when it comes to finding an autism specialist setting. This leaves it unsuitable for many autistic pupils leaving families forced to look for alternative options. The school is also growing into a super-sized specialist, which may eventually make it unsuitable for pupils who need the smaller environment it was originally designed to provide.

2019 – 2021 – Segregation Years

As well as a crisis in specialist school places, there has been another narrative at play in Bristol, which families fear has compounded the issue. That is that specialist education is a form of segregation.

Potential early indicators of this come in a 2019 report commissioned by Bristol City Council from PeopleToo, which recommended the likelihood of special schools ‘becoming filled’ with pupils ‘who could be educated in mainstream’.

This was a theme that would be echoed by Marvin Rees in 2021, when he said: ‘‘But actually, our view is that for many of those children where they can mainstream education with adequate support rather than segregation in specialist education is the best place is the best place from which they can not only get support for their academic journey, but their social journey and learning those social skills, that they’re going to need once they leave the education system as well.”

Marvin Rees special school segregation


After the Ofsted and the CQC’s Joint Send Inspection in 2019 revealed several areas of significant weakenss in the city’s Send provision, an Extraordinary People Scrutiny Commission meeting was held on Monday 03 February 2020.

Bristol Send Justice’s Sally Kent raised the growing crisis of specialist school places.

Sally Kent address People Scrutiny Commission, the Labour education lead and chief education officers at City Hall

She said: “Bristol currently has just short of three thousand EHCPs or there abouts. I would just add that there’s another 500 coming through the system. You have eight new EPs but not coming until September. It’s just gonna get bigger and bigger and bigger. And statistically in Bristol, forty-two percent of children with EHCP plans are in special schools. So I mean this is beyond a critical crisis now, this is an emergency. Forty-two percent of approximately five hundred children or even if only three hundred of them are issued plans, which is likely to be more, where are these children gonna be placed? There’s no school places. The bomb’s gone off and it’s just, everyone’s like quietly stepping around it.”

Former Labour Cabinet education lead Anna Keen, was in attendance at the meeting, hearing about Send issues – including the specialist places crisis – from families in public forum.

However, the council were more than aware of how many children and young people did not have a specialist school place. A report going to Cabinet – signed off by the Mayor’s Office – found that nearly 200 pupils were waiting for places with hundreds more coming through the system.

Cabinet papers September 2020

The report became a subject of contention after Anna Keen caused a rumble with former Local Democracy Reporter Amanda Cameron, after the council took umbrage at their own figures published online.

Another independent report commissioned by the council – Review Report Bristol Alternative Learning Provision October – November 2020, highlighted in bold that ‘Bristol is a very high user of ALP’.

It continues: ‘The increasing pressure on places are blocked to a great extent by SEND children in placements ‘long-term’. These are mainly the students with EHCPs awaiting school placement or undergoing assessment for EHCP.’

The report also found that there are anything up to 500 children accessing the Bristol Hospital Education Service at any one time, a service often used by autistic pupils too anxious to school and often needing a specialist place.


The Ofsted and CQC Joint Send Re-inspection led by Phil Minns, found that Bristol had not made sufficient progress in addressing the ‘significant weakness’ with its ‘fractured relationships with parents and carers’. This surely won’t be helped by a Christmas blog whitewashing over a decade of specialist place planning failure, with an issue which has been consistently raised within the Local Authority directly to senior leaders, the Mayor and Cabinet education leads.

Bristol City Council and the Mayoral administration were more than aware that there was a crisis in specialist school places for a very long time but, as Craig confirms in her blog post, chose not to act to remedy this until 2022.

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