Bristol EHCP Delays Coloured Green Raises Questions at Scrutiny

Delays in Bristol’s Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) process was raised by councillors at the Overview and Scrutiny Management Board (OSMB) this week, with the process of marking off unlawfully long delays in green brought under scrutiny.

Guy Collings, Head of Insight, Performance & Intelligence’s report Quarterly Performance Progress Report (Quarter 1 2021/22) Included targets and results around the EHCP process.

Under ‘fair and inclusive’ the report says: ‘The percentage of Educational Health Care Plans that are issued within timescales continues to improve steadily and stands at 42.1per cent. Early indications are that this will improve further as the year progresses. There is concern that despite additional and new staff being trained, the impact of major procedural changes in the EHCP process, improvements may be slower than anticipated.’

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In the EHCP performance summary, a Red, Amber, Green, RAG rated colour system shows the number of final EHCPs completed within 20 weeks coloured in green.

The accompanying text says: ‘During the period January to March 2021 107 new EHC plans were finalised of which 45 were within the 20 week timescale. This is the DfE cohort excluding plans with a mediation and/or tribunal before the final plan is issued and excludes exception cases (Those cases when a decision is made not to issue a plan/reconsidered/changes and subsequently a plan is issued.) The expectation is that this figure will continue to increase now new staff have been trained. However, we are about to begin the implementation of a major change in the way EHCPs are written including a change in the ways schools, professionals and families input information.’

But Liberal Democrat Councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park Tim Kent raised concerns about the way the EHCP targets and results were presented, believing the RAG rated colour system did not represent the full picture.

Kent said: “The reason I raise this is because there’s statistics, statistics and then damn lies. This isn’t a damn lie it is completely accurate but it has been manipulated, admittedly the Department for Education have given us permission to manipulate this statistic, so if there’s any blame it lies with them.”

He explained to OSMB how the EHCP process worked, with applications for an Education Health Care Needs Assessment needing to be dealt with in receipt order. But raised the fact the Department for Education (DFE) allowed Bristol to fast track of proportion of them.

“I’m not necessarily attacking that,” he said, “but the problem then is if we look at this statistic, it’s sort of implying that everything is going really well when in fact I’m afraid the truth is, and I think we began to see some of the truth in those questions and the answers to those questions earlier, is complete opposite.”

He brought up the results of a Freedom of Information Act request made by a Bristol resident through What Do They Know, which had Bristol City Council’s most latest publicly available data surrounding the amount of weeks they were taking to complete the process.

As of 31 August 2021, there were 625 ‘live’ EHCP applications. Of those, 320 were unlawfully past the 20 week time frame.

A total of 81 EHCPs on the same date were already over 40 weeks, double the amount of time the law allows.

Kent said: “The issue here is there’s been a substantial increase in the amount of applications and unfortunately no increase in our ability to be able to deal with those applications and conclude them. It does look pretty bad when you look at the figures of where we’re at.”

He referred to EHCP statistics from 2019, when the Bristol EHC Needs Assessment process last had the most serious backlog. Kent said: “The administration put in place additional resources to try to tackle that backlog.”

Continuing with 2020 EHCP data, he said: “In 2020 there were 700 and over 700 decisions made on the EHCPs. Then again there was also virtually the same amount of applications made – you do lose some because some are assessed at six weeks is not needing an EHCP – but our response to government was in 2019 only three percent were rejected at the six-week period.”

Kent expressed concerns surrounding the 2021 figures saying he was ‘really worried’ that in the first six months of the year there had been more than 450 applications but only 230 decisions.

“This means we have a massive backlog rebuilding up again. And that’s why I come back to statistics, statistics and to dam lies. The statistic is right, what is given. But is giving us, I think, a false presentation that everything is OK. In fact, in the last six months, nine months, things have got substantially worse and that seems to be a couple of reasons.

“One, there’s a lot more applications going to the system- certainly no fault of officers or the administration. But two, we’re not in any way, it appears, upping our ability to be able to deal with those amount of applications and I think that needs to be flagged now before it becomes a complete crisis. I think we’re at the beginning of it but soon we will see people waiting again over a year.”

Kent raised the fact that the backlog could not be instantly dealt with because it required trained staff and educational psychologists.

He concluded that although everything ‘looks good’ with the traffic light system, it’s only once you ‘dig underneath’ the numbers that you realise there is a ‘major problem.’

Guy Collings told OSMB that they are “acutely aware of this on a daily basis, so I’m pretty confident in saying, on behalf of the service, that they are on top of this. Clearly when you explore it in the scrutiny they will give you or seek to explore further options for resolution and progress from their own perspective. But I’m pretty happy to say that they are aware of this and the data is available on a daily basis.”

Chief Executive of Bristol City Council, Mike Jackson called the performance indicators the ‘start of a conversation about performance’ and that no one was going to ‘hide anything’.

He said: “I just wanted to reassure Councillor Kent thatyou know so I was aware of the situation that you’ve just described and so are senior officers. That’s not inconsistent as we’ve just discussed with the data as you know it’s an agreed approach agreed with the department, the data and the performance indicator is what it says.

“I think actually you’ve illustrated very well whilst why performance indicators are only ever the start of a conversation about performance and so no one is looking to hide anything here. We’re aware of the growing challenge that you’re referring to and it’ll obviously be you know, useful to explore that further with you in depth through scrutiny.”

Kent added that he believed the ‘big question’ is ‘what are we going to do about it’ but said he would like to talk further.

Conservative Councillor for Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze, Geoff Gollop said regarding the EHCP numbers: “If we put the healthcare plans in context, we’re talking of 600 families in trauma and challenge and not able to find a resolution. So I do see that as something that we should be concerned about and pressing for a solution. I accept there is not an easy solution and I’m not wanting us to turn this into a political challenge, but I do wonder whether not just going to the Scrutiny Commission, but whether we shouldn’t be flagging up to Cabinet that we are concerned about this issue and that it does need to be resourced to be resolved.”

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