Bristol School Places Crisis Continues With Send and Mainstream Issues Linked

The Bristol School Places shortage was firmly on the agenda of Bristol Schools Forum this week. Both specialist schools and mainstream secondaries are facing a significant lack of places, with the need for specialist provision in crisis.

Director of Education and Skills, Alison Hurley and School Place Planning Manager Ian Bell, both addressed the forum regarding the shortfall in places.

The plans for the expansion of specialist provision came from the results of a consultants report from Turner and Townsend, who were contracted around £135,000 in the summer of 2020, to run a feasibility study into potential new specialist opportunities. The consultants looked into expressions of interest from education settings willing to expand for Send places.

Whilst the demand for specialist provision exceeding the current availability in the city comes as no surprise, it is a surprise that any new schools are not considered the solution in the short term.

Papers to schools forum show that of the 78 expressions of interest from 30 schools, 49 feasibility studies have been completed leading to 32 ‘potential schemes’, with 13 approved and ready to take forward creating 154 new places. The approved schemes won’t be able to take place until Service Level Agreements are finalised in the next stage of completetion.

Hurley said of those 13 approved schemes: “Obviously, we will now continue to, in that process, set up Service Level Agreements (SLA) with those schools and look at that timeframe of getting them open and getting the build done if there are, the build that needs to take place or adjustments.”

“The challenge we have and the reason that we continue to be delayed, obviously is just the pressure that we have on the system both in terms of the feasibility studies, the dialogue, the planning but also about, from a school’s perspective, things like staffing, having works on site during the current situation and so there’s just a constant sort of you know, hurdles that we’re having to try and to work through to move this forward.

“But we are pursuing in the way that we intended and we will start to be able, when those SLAs are agreed, start to be able to get some dates out for phase one, phase two and the bigger projects in phase three.”

Bristol Schools Forum Chair, Christine Townsend replied: “On the ground, what’s going to make the difference for children, families, are the additional places and from our perspective as forum, that’s what’s going to help to bring our High Needs Budget down. Are you in a position, as we sit here, to give us any indications for September this year?”

Hurley said that they were looking for any ‘quick wins’ in the 13 approved schemes to try and fast-track those before September, getting them up and running in the summer term.

Addressing forum about the pupils waiting for places, Hurley said: “We are really thinking about how we hold that group of children and young people who are caught up in this delay and thinking about how we work more with schools and settings to make sure that provision is in place in the schools and settings they’re currently attending and how to support schools in that process as well and with the provision.

“So, I think we’re going to hold that group more tightly than we have previously and look at them as a discreet cohort. Which will obviously mean that we’re monitoring their progress in the setting they’re in whilst they wait for their specialist provision.”

Councillor Ruth Pickersgill queried what philosophical framework the council was using to inform the strategy, or whether they were simply being ‘pragmatic’ to try and find places.

Hurley said: “Part of this is about expanding specialist provision and expanding those providers that are currently working in areas such as social, emotional and mental health. It’s also about expanding provision within mainstream settings and that really comes from the viewpoint of making sure that those young people who can be in mainstream settings but need additional support to do that, you know the sort of one foot in special, one foot in mainstream, that we’re investing in the right provision to make their experience of mainstream school successful.

“It’s also about ensuring there is choice in the localities that those children live, we’re not investing in, we’re not having to sort of move children about and increase their travel from one side of the city to another if we can provide provision in their local community and they’ve got that choice locally. So they’re the sort of current philosophical reasons behind it, however saying that, there is a real urgency to make sure that we have, generally more places across the city in those key areas such as children with autism, social and emotional mental health, they’re kind of our two big areas. So that is about investing, you know, in as many schools and settings as we’re able to that are able to meet the needs and have the ability to meet the needs successfully and it falls within the capital funding we’ve got to do this.”

The school place situation isn’t fairing much better for mainstream secondary, which has hit crisis point in Central East. This has been exacerbated by the failure of a new free school opening at Temple Quarter due to planning issues. Cabot Learning Federation is aiming to move its post-16 provision in Bristol Brunel Academy (BBA) and John Cabot Academy (JCA) to South Gloucestershire to enable them to increase their number of year 7 spaces.

Lack of spaces during the 2020/21 academic year will cause further issues other than first round applications. One issue will affect in-year admissions. A lack of spaces will leave those moving into Bristol or around Bristol short of school places. It will also affect pupils who need a change of school.

This has a further impact on Send – Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. The report states: ‘Where pupils are offered places in schools that are not preferences and/or are some distance from home can affect behaviour and attendance. This can then result in increasing demand for SEND and Alternative Learning Provision.’

Addressing forum, Ian Bell said: “That has a knock affect in itself to things like behaviour and attendance because if pupils are attending schools that are a long distance away or that they didn’t really want to go to then that obviously can have a consequence. So all of these things affected by the extreme pressure on places.”

Bell’s report to forum also stated that offers of a place at secondary schools will be made on 01 March 2021, but: ‘Due to the complexity of the multi-preference school place allocation system it is not yet known how many families will receive an offer of a school place that was a preference.’

Bell referred to Bristol’s Integrated Education and Capital Strategy from 2015 whilst talking to forum members. He said it had identified a need for three new secondary schools in Bristol, ‘one in each area of the city,’ because expanding schools would not deliver enough places.

Continuing he said that whilst the first school Trinity Academy has already opened and will move to taking in a full 180 pupils in September, the ‘main issue’ is that the Oasis Academy Temple Quarter has been ‘severely delayed’ due to the planning being called in for public enquiry. There would ‘probably not’ be any places available at this proposed school in September 2022 either.

The Oasis South Bristol school is currently scheduled with the Department for Education for a 2023 opening, although there maybe talks going ahead about bringing that opening forward a year ‘which would obviously ease some of the pressure in the system.’ Although he said that might not be ‘so straightforward.’

But the Integrated Education and Capital Strategy of the time – 2015 – also identified a ‘pressure’ on specialist placement as well, particularly for children with Social Emotional and Mental Health needs (SEMH, Autism, Speech, Language and Communication needs (SLCN), Complex Needs and Multi-Sensory Impairment MSI).

The maintained capacity at the time was full and based on the numbers, there was a predicted shortfall of 128 specialist places – making up 18 classes – by 2019 of all need types and ages.

The capacity of special schools at the time was managed through ‘expensive’ commissioned places or through Alternative Learning Provision (ALP).

The strategy also identified children with SEMH needs as the largest growing group, contributing to Bristol’s high rate of permanent exclusions at the time.

By 2019, Bristol saw Venturers’ Academy, a new autism specialist school open in the city, as well as Pegasus School in neighbouring South Gloucestershire.

But by September 2020, a report to Cabinet showed there were still 190 pupils with Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) requiring a specialist provision yet no spaces to give them and more coming through the system.

Further implications due to the lack of school spaces was raised by St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School governor Karen Brown, who commentented regarding her concern on additional costs being passed onto schools.

She said: “Given the fact that the local authority are unable to offer sufficient school places for Bristol children, we will anticipate a significant number of appeals that will be coming through to secondary schools as a result of this.

“Each secondary school appeal costs the individual school a considerable amount of money that they have to fund out of their own budgets. And it does seem a little bit unfair that the children who are at the school should be at a detriment financially for the council’s inability to provide a school place for the children.

“So there’s nothing one can do about it because the systems are in place but I think given that we know this system is going to be in difficulty for the next few years, I just feel a little aggrieved on behalf of the pupils of secondary school who are in a place because they will be financially disadvantaged through having to pay the council to run the appeals process.”