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Bristol Safety Valve Branded ‘Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing’ by Campaign Group

Bristol Safety Valve agreement savaged over its ‘Debt Forgiveness Plan’

‘Be wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing’ is the message from Send campaigners in the city today, as Bristol City Council officially announces it’s on the Safety Valve Scheme.

Bristol’s controversial application caused families to lash out this month after secret papers went to Cabinet with no time for people to take part in Public Forum.

The application which went into the Department for Education (DfE) in January 2024, came as a surprise to local councillors as well as the public, who believed that Bristol City Council had been working on the Better Value in Send programme instead.

The council has announced this week that it will be receiving over £53.79m over a seven year period to tackle its ongoing Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) deficit. The ongoing money will be dependent on Bristol managing to reduce its Special Educational Needs and Disabilities overspend along the way.

The city will now join 37 other local authorities on the programme. It’s a far cry from the claim made In Cabinet this month by Deputy Mayor with responsibility for Children’s Services, Education and Equalities, Asher Craig. She inaccurately informed councillors that there were over 60 local authorities already on the programme.

Bristol City Council says: “The agreement with the DfE provides an opportunity for Bristol to help improve outcomes for children and young people with SEND, whilst operating in a financially sustainable way. It also means that BCC will invest up to £46.5 million as part of the programme.”

The council also says the current DSG deficit is now over £53m and without mitigations is likely to rise to over £133m by 2025/26/

Asher Craig told families this week that the additional £48m from the council will be coming from Bristol’s Corporate Reserves.

The current DSG deficit for Bristol is over £53 million which if remains ‘unmitigated’ is projected to rise to over £133 million by 2025-26.

The Safety Valve agreement between Bristol and the DfE will see the council work with’ stakeholders’ to develop a Deficit Management Plan (DMP).

This means it will have to do the following things:

  • the co-production of a city-wide SEND Inclusion Strategy
  • improving the timeliness of education health and care (EHC) plan processes and reviews
  • developing creative and dynamic ways to retain young people in quality, mainstream provision, meeting their needs, improving their educational outcomes and reducing the risk of exclusion.

Bristol says it will also be working with schools, parents, carers and partner organisations. A full report is expected to be coming to Cabinet in April.

Angry families and campaigners have hit out today, slamming the programme as a ‘Debit Recovery’ and ‘Debt Forgiveness Plan’.

A post on Bristol’s Local Offer Facebook page on the 21 March said: ‘Bristol SEND to receive over £50million in extra funding and support from the Department for Education as part of the Safety Valve programme Dedicated Schools Grant management programme, which funds services for children and young people with SEND. The agreement also means that Bristol City Council will invest up to £46.5million as part of the programme.’

The post infuriated Bristol famiies who are calling it ‘spin’.

One poster commented: ‘Anyone reading this should ignore the spin and be aware that this money is not “investment” in SEND. It is debt recovery and debt forgiveness of Bristol’s overspend in the high needs block funding. Bristol has already cut £8million from the top up funding budget. Don’t believe the hype – this is a dark day for SEND children in Bristol.’

A second poster questioned: ‘Investing in debt?’

A third wrote: ‘This statement is completely false and misleading. There is no investment coming. It’s a honey trap for councils and you know it: a debt recovery scheme with arbitrary targets that will cripple the LA’s ability to deliver the provision our disabled children actually need.

‘We’re not falling for it. Nice way to repair fractured relationships with Bristol families of disabled children.

‘Is the Safety Valve on a collision course with schools and families? An emphatic YES’

The ‘fractured relationship’ between Bristol City Council and its Send families is the one area of ‘significant weakness’ it was unable to pass on in the Ofsted and Send reinspection of Bristol’s Send services in November 2022.

A long history of Education Health Care Plans (EHCP) delays, a shortage of specialist school places and surging school exclusions have come up against allegations of spying on families, no funding for the Parent Carer Forum all of which has contributed to souring relationships.

The secretive nature around the city’s Safety Valve programme caused further friction at Full Council this month, the Labour Lord Mayor banged his gavel until it broke.

At the time of the re-inspection, lead Ofsted Inspector Phil Minns wrote: ‘However, the majority of parents and carers accessing services and support more recently are positive about their experience’. It later transpired that this statement was not accurate.

Campaign group Bristol Send Justice said today: ‘Let’s cut through this spin, and there’s a lot of it!

‘In a nutshell, there is no extra funding from the DfE for SEND services in Bristol, zero, nada, sweet FA. ‘Funding’ from the DfE is paying off the DSG debt. It is a debt management plan. A balancing of spreadsheets. No funding.

‘Bristol’s ‘investment’ into Safety Valve, is that for SEND services we hear you say? The word ‘investment’ would lead you to believe so, but that is just Labour spin with local elections round the corner in May, misleading you into thinking £100 million was on its way for SEND. Bristol’s contribution also goes towards the DSG deficit, so when they say they are ‘investing’, what they are actually ‘investing’ in, is debt recovery.

‘In order for Bristol to get on to this debt management scheme, they have agreed to reduce spending on SEND services, yes that is correct, they are making cuts to the SEND service, and because entrance onto this scheme has been purposely hidden from the public, there has been no opportunity for scrutiny or discussion. There is not one single public document available on this issue before the cabinet application document on 5th May. Sweet FA.

‘Only the Labour administration knows what they have agreed to.

‘As the old saying goes, be wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing….’

Send families have already been antagonised this week over Safety Valve funding concerns. A presentation given by Asher Craig and Bristol’s new Director of Education Hannah Woodhouse at a Send event quickly descended into a fraught Q&A session.

Asher Craig told families “I’m not here to play politics with the lives of children and young people.”

Slides from Director of Education Hannah Woodhouse’s presentation Bristol’s Ambition for Inclusivity

Hannah Woodhouse who has only been in post six weeks said: “The point about the Safety Valve Programme is that it is a deal done with Government which is about investment in Special Educational Needs from government and from Bristol City Council.

“It means we will have no deficit. If we then manage to work together to be able to invest our resources sustainably and equitably for all children with Special Educational Needs. That’s the basis of the Safety Valve.”

“There’s no change in the way we will deliver or assess or provide provision for children with Special Educational Needs. There’s no expectations in terms of ties in terms of how we will change the way that we work. What we’re basically doing is accepting significant investment from Bristol City Council and government to get rid of that deficit in order to be able to make sure that we regularise, basically we put on, we may well be expanding the number of specialist placements as we go forward.”

She stressed the money from the council would be coming out of Corporate Reserves and central Government meaning there would be no deficit.

Send parents in attendance raised concerns that the money was simply writing off a deficit rather than being an investment into Send.

School staff also raised concerns that the Safety Valve quickly follows Marvin Rees’ decision to cut non statutory Top Up funding at Cabinet in February this year.

One teacher said: “To receive timely support is all about early intervention. A cut in funding actually it’s less timely because we now have to go through EHCP processes to get funding to put the support in place which is actually less efficient with the new model.”

Woodhouse replied: “Early intervention – the work to keep children in school – is a model the council is ‘wanting to develop’ and will be ‘building on’ the work that Top Up has done “investing in schools so they they are developing more inclusive practices.”

Liberal Democrat councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park, Tim Kent joined in the row on X.

In response to Bristol City Council’s announcement that it would ‘receive’ £50m in funding, Kent posted: ‘To clarify SEND is not receiving one penny of extra funding. The funding is only for reducing a deficit already incurred. A council should not be making false statements during the election period.

So the council has overspent on SEND as the govt has failed to fund it sufficiently. This debt has built up and now the govt are willing to pay some of it off if we agree to reduce spending on SEND – which they continue to underfund.’

The Safety Valve news comes the same time Bristol City Council is running two surveys of its Send provision.

One asks for feedback on Bristol City Council’s latest new Send strategy without detail about how it will look or what its impact on families and children will be.

In it, Bristol says: ‘In recent months we have been listening to families, educational settings, professionals and communities, to understand what is going well for children and young people with SEND in Bristol, and what needs to improve. This work has helped us identify our priority areas for change and how we need to work differently to improve things for CYP with SEND in the city.’

They now want to hear whether families agree with the new priorities and ways of working to shape their latest new SEND strategy.

The second is a survey of families with children and young people with Send asking for feedback on what the council is doing well and what it could improve.

More details about the Bristol Safety Valve programme are expected to be revealed at Cabinet on Tuesday 09 April 2024 at 4pm.

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