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Bristol Schools Forum – How the Bristol Safety Valve is Going Down

Director of Education goes into more detail on the controversial secret Safety Valve application

As the Bristol Safety Valve row continues to cause concern in Bristol’s Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) community, Director of Education in Bristol, Reena Bhogal-Welsh gave a verbal update.

The meeting which was live streamed by Bristol City Council was removed from view following the meeting. This is by done under direction of the Bristol School Forum chairs.

Bhogal-Welsh’s presentation included a section on the Bristol Safety Valve – Towards a sustainable and inclusive SEND system in Bristol – featured a series of slides which were not part of the public report pack.

Addressing the slide show in her verbal update, Bhogal-Welsh called it the “exciting bit.”

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Reena said: “Safety Valve. I’m just going to go from the basics and then hopefully I can cover absolutely everything that we need to.

“So who is the Safety Valve for? The Safety Valve is for any local authority with significantly high DSG deficits. It’s always really nice because they tell you that you are invited to be part of Safety Valve. It’s less of an invitation more of, I would say, a proposal that this is something that you would definitely like to be part of. Local authorities that have less severe deficits with their DSGs, they tend to be invited to be part of the Delivering Better Value, which colleagues know we’ve already been part of that programme. And we had a million pounds provided as part of that programme for some test and learn work, which might cause some confusion.

“We are part of the very few local authorities who are transitioning from Delivering Better Value into the Safety Valve. Our work hasn’t stopped around the Delivering Better Value. We are still working with settings and we are still looking at out test and learn pilots. And what we can significantly almost get ahead of before the Safety Valve really comes into play.

“What is a Safety Valve? Traditionally I would say for many local authorities it is a five-year plan. So before you even enter into any form of agreement, the Department for Education (DfE) make it very clear that it is a five-year agreement between the DfE and individual local authorities. And the role of the DfE in this is to hold local authorities to account around our Send reforms and becoming financially stable. But it is ensuring that our Send strategy’s at the heart of the work that we do. And that the experience and the value for young people and families, for those with Send is that of equality. And that is absolutely paramount for all the discussions that have taken place in the lead up to Safety Valve.

“So when does it happen? What is expected from us as a local authority is that over that five years, the local authority is expected to reach an in-year balance and over that period of time there is a lot of accountability. There is very much a scrutiny element to our participation as part of the programme and we are held to account rigorously. And there is a robust system in place.

“So how will it happen? What we have entered into is a six-year transformation plan or where we’ve identified any investment costs and we’ve outlined the work we are doing around our strategy for Send as well and obviously it is to build on the work that is currently happening or is already in flight as mentioned previously in different schools forums around our management plan. So we’ve been really clear around what our management plan looks like- each work stream down to who the programme leads are. And building on our Delivering Better Value work as well because we know that’s been significantly of value for us.

“So Why have we been invited to be part of Safety Valve? Without repeating everything that Stephen shared earlier, it is really around that accumulated deficit of £56m that would be our position towards the end of 23/24. Obviously the forecasted in year deficit as well that currently exists.

“So a quick overview regarding the strategic approach, first and foremost what we have acknowledged is that in order for Send to be sustainable for the financial health of the organisation to be sustainable, it really is about the culture that is created as part of our Send strategy. It is that shared responsibility of course, that shared accountability and that we have that learning process that is underpinned by the trust that we have with leaders across the city. You know we do want to have a system where good outcomes are at the heart of the strategy but also enable our young people to be successful in their next steps and that they have opportunities that are available to them. And we want to ensure that equity exists.

“So it really is about how do we create that Send system where young people with Send can remain in mainstream provision for longer. I’ll always come back to it is about the right provision at the right time for the right young person and meeting the individual needs of the young person as well. You know it’s really important that we continue to build on strength and practice that we take a look at the physical spaces that we have. It’s ensuring that provision meets the need of the young people and that this about the individual level of each child. And that we have specialist provision where it is required because it is required for some of our young people and I’m sure Tonya would agree.

“It’s about having an efficient system that is also effective as well. We acknowledge it’s about that timely support. It’s about the right level of funding. And it’s about working with leaders across the city to continue to build and strengthen our relationships. I wholeheartedly believe this is that leaders are key stakeholders alongside our parent carer forum but also our young people as well and acknowledging where their voice fits into this and the strategy.

“So what I’ve tried to do here and what colleagues might have seen this slide before. We’ve tried to breakdown the strategic focus for you into four key themes so you can see what we’re focusing on within the strategy and within the management plan as well. So it really is about our sufficiency meeting the demand, the efficiency and the partnerships as well. So again, coming back to sufficiency. So ensuring that we’ve got the right level of provision to meet the needs of all children and young people and as colleagues may or may not have seen, today and Chair I’m more than happy to come back to this point, but the DfE have formally announced on the .Gov website today that the Bristol special free school the trust has been named and that has been formally announced, so obviously that will support the sufficiency across the city.

“A lot of forensic work has gone into our sufficiency regarding what does that provision look like? What are the needs of the city? Do we have the right sufficiency in place. So Enable have been named as the trust who will lead on the Bristol Special Free School which is great news for the city. It will be even better once this comes into place because we know that it will provide that additional sufficiency that we need.

“We’ve obviously been forensic and very granular when we’ve had to submit all of our documentation to the DfE regarding Safety Valve, particularly around demand and knowing actually what that demand looks like. We’ve looked at birth rates, we’ve looked at death rates, we’ve looked at the Bulge at secondary, the impact that would have on special schools, the impact that would have on post 16. What does that look like at early years as well. So we’ve had to be really granular in terms of identifying that demand that’s coming through and making sure that we can support where that demand is coming through across the city as well.

“We’ve also looked at efficiency, so ensuring we’re not just efficient by we’re also effective in the systems. You know, ensuring that schools have the right level of funding at the right time to meet the needs of young people. I know this is quite topical and I know colleagues around the virtual table tonight will have lots of questions around funding. What does it look like? You know there are a number of changes happening post consultation with the Delivering Better Value work. So I’m hoping I can clarify some of those questions and queries as we move through the deck.

“And of course finally it’s not forgetting partnerships. You know, it’s a key focus for us. Although the local authority has entered into this agreement, it is about the partnerships we have with leaders, with settings, with parents and carers, with the young people and wider stakeholders as well, because it is about strengthening those relationships. It is about co-production, collaboration, engaging with as many different stakeholders throughout this process. And to clarify the submission for Safety Valve was not something that we could do as part of co-production, this was a strategic need for the organisation for not just for the financial health of the organisation but also to ensure we could meet the needs of the young people and to ensure we have the right strategic direction, we have the right Send strategy in place and that children and young people are at the heart of what we’re doing and entering into this agreement about.

“So this slide is very heavy on numbers so I’m grateful that we’ve got finance. But I’ve spoke to this slide many many times before and I’ll try to draw colleagues attention to certain areas so forgive me if there’s a lot of animation going on but I want to circle and highlight.

“So as you can see, the first top two lines we have our mitigated position and our unmitigated position. The second line which is the unmitigated position, this would be if the local authority did absolutely nothing in regards to the DSG and that means we did nothing, we just put everything down and we didn’t move any fingers to ensure that we could have a significant impact for our young people.

“As you can see in the direction that those numbers are moving towards, this would put us in a position where we wouldn’t be sustainable as an organisation. However, thankfully, that is no the case and we are doing things and many of our mitigations are in flight. But once we have all mitigations in place, then the DGG position moves in a slightly different direction and you can start to see it is 28/29 when we start to move towards a break even position and where you can start to almost see us turning that financial curve.

“We’ve taken into consideration inflation by looking at our finances and financial predictions around this and obviously this is uncontainable, but we’ve had to really consider what that would look like and the finance team have broken that down. We’ve also looked at the contribution from reserves as well and what the local authority would be putting into this financial agreement. And then we’ve also looked at the contribution from the DfE and what we would be requesting in order to move us in the right direction for financial stability and financial health of the organisation because without that we can’t keep our young people at the forefront and at the centre of what we do.

“So lots of numbers but what I’m trying to share without and show you is that this isn’t just about the financial contribution from the DfE, we’ve also looked at our reserves. I’m very grateful for the 0.5 contribution from Schools Forum. Although that’s been planned out in this document, please don’t feel this isn’t something that we’d be coming back to annually. We will annually keep coming back to Schools Forum as agreed with Chair, to ask for that contribution to support us with our financial health of the Safety Valve Programme. But also ensuring that we can provide a significant effective service for our young people.

“What we have here is just a breakdown of all of the different themes, the different work streams. What is considered a mitigation such as the new specialist provision would be considered a mitigation. How that supports the financial health, but then also key enablers, so for example being able to hold an annual Send summit. This might not be a financial mitigation but it is definitely a huge enabler to ensuring that we have the right culture in place for the entire city to move in the direction that we need to move in.

“I’ve not spoken to leader yet who hasn’t agreed that a young person with an EHCP can have their needs met within a mainstream setting if they don’t need a specialist provision. But it’s more about those forensic questions as to how well how can I do that? What does that look like? What support will be in place? How can we support teachers and Sendcos and leaders across the city more widely? How can we engage parents carers and you young people themselves to ensure that we can meet their needs within mainstream settings? We’ve tried to give you a bit of an array around that activity so you can see what we’re looking at in terms of the mitigation plan.

“So the current funding model which I know will be a question on everyone’s tongues tonight will be around – well what does the current funding model look like?

“So this is what we currently have in place which is where we have what is known as top up. So we have our EHCP funding and we have our non statutory funding. And you can see, I’ve been quite transparent around the allocation of 23/24. You know where our greatest demand has come through for our non-statutory funding. And then the needs for that non-statutory funding, for colleagues forgive me around the aconyms, so SEMH is around social, emotional mental health. SLCN is around speech, language and cognition. We’ve tried to be really transparent and really open with colleagues as to that the funding has been used for over this year.

“This is the proposal around the future of funding models. So the current top up funding model will be phased out. We’re looking at a single panel to be put in place. We’re looking to have current non statutory funding commitments in line with current agreements – but no loner than the three years that we’ve identified. We’ve looked at utilising a delivery partner to provide that specialism in terms of how we can co-design the new non-statutory offer. I think this fits significantly important the new head of service for inclusion and delivery partner in line to not only provide that support but also to hold us to account to ensure that we’re being as dynamic and as creative as possible alongside leaders to co-design this will be really important.

“We’ve identified a targeted funding but also outreach support as well, which will be incredibly important. So this is a key piece of work that I’m sure lots of colleagues around the virtual table tonight would want to be part of.

“And then a development period of this piece of co-designing and co-construction between period of April and July. And then for us to make this operational from September. so you can see the timeline is really clear and I know that a number of the workshops will be happening next month. So if colleagues haven’t had an invite to those then please do reach out to Emma. Let her know and we’ll make sure any invite list and distribution list that you’re part of that.

“So obviously that funding and support will be outcome focused. We know that it needs to be time bound and we know that we need to demonstrate that impact, but also those improved outcomes. It’s really important for us to ensure that we acknowledge that our young people with Send have an entitlement to those improved outcomes and an equitable opportunity for them to go on to be successful through whichever routes they choose to go down. For me it is about the opportunities that young people have and the choices they are able to make.

“Around education providers, what we’re looking at that targeted funding and outreach model. And the use of our school improvement offer is all being wrapped into this. That intervention. That inclusion hub that Tonya rightly made a statement around and including special heads. And obviously the BAT team as well. So we’ve really tried to have that holistic approach to what we want to do.”

Headteacher at New Fosseway School, Tonya Hill wanted to know how ‘effective’ the Safety Valve Programme is and asked ‘what evidence’ the DfE has that shows it even works.

Hill expressed concern that Bristol might be penalised for not being able to deliver what the DfE wants because it is an ‘impossible task’. She drew attention to the number of local authorities who were also struggling with large overspends on their high needs budget.

She added: “Do we need to look at the whole of the education offer that we provide them? Are we just trying to support a system that is no longer fit for purpose for these children who are crying out and saying that this current model doesn’t work for me. We have having children who are hurting each other because they’re saying actually I’m not being heard, I’m not being listened. And it’s not through lack of, we’ve everyone sat around this table is doing all that they can to help these children. And I just feel like the powers that be need to step back and say actually we are throwing all this money. Do we need to re-look at the Send Code of Practice? Do we need to look at our educational offer?”

Reena replied: “You’ve hit the nail on the head. I can’t speak for the DfE and I would never dream of speaking for the DfE and as we know, this is currently being live streamed. So I would never wish to put myself in that position. In terms of the evidence of Safety Valve working. I do ask that colleague almost for your bedtime reading and homework, take a look at other local authorities and the agreements that are entered into. You know I can reassure members that there is a lot of rigorous accountability. The scrutiny is huge in terms of how the DfE will be holding us to account to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of what we’ve entered into the agreement for. But I can’t speak on behalf around the evidence. I’m really sorry Tonya. I don’t have that. And I wouldn’t dream of commenting on it either.

“I think Send reforms are our key to us nationally. So if there is ever an opportunity to feed into those discussions and of course you have my assurances as the schools forum that I would feed into them and ensure our voices are heard in Bristol.”

Merche Clark from St John Primary asked: “I just wanted to clarify my understanding of what’s being proposed. My understanding is that by phasing out top up and funding will go with EHCPs – which seems to make a lot of sense. And that there’s going to be a three-year transition on top up funding for non statutory cases. My concern is that it seems to me that work needs to happen really early on to have the most impact on pupil’s outcomes. If that work needs to be done probably before the EHCPs are in place, so in the longer term, how is that going to be funded?”

Reena replied: “Work will need to start as early as working with our early years setting. It’s integral and key that we start that work as soon as possible. That we engage with families. We also engage with settings and leaders around it. I think in terms of how will that be funded, early years is funded slightly differently. Particularly around Send. So I think this is about how we have that system leadership of those education improvement officers. How we get into different settings and work with them as quickly but also as early as possible. I don’t think it’s about creating a new funding stream or a new funding line, but it’s about how we use the current resources that we’ve got to tap into those and to work with the leaders. And there is some really great practice happening within early years. We’ve got the stronger practice hubs. All of this needs to funnel through and it’s almost as if the Send strategy has given us that agency to really go all the way back to the beginning. We’ve stripped our entire process and system back to say right. This is where we’ve got to start and start to look at. So I don’t think it’s necessarily just about how one element is funded. It’s how we use those resources to have a much more widespread impact as early as possible.”

Clark expressed concern that when you have four or five year olds with significant needs in a mainstream school, how can schools put in the extra adults that these pupils needed?

Reena replied “We’re looking at therapy frameworks and how we intervene.

Clark said: “There isn’t any money at all in school’s normal budget for that. Somehow there needs to be a way of getting money to the schools to be able to do that work.”

Reena said: “And how we can, I would say, work more collaboratively as well. Sometimes that expertise doesn’t necessarily come from just within the local authority. We’ve got colleagues around the screen who are well versed in tapping into those resources and how we collectively work together as well.”

Jo Willis of the Bristol Diocese Board of Education asked about the response from parents and carers.

She said: “Obviously you hear this, you hear cuts. You get worried about what’s going to happen to your child . So I would be interested to hear what sort of communications you’ve been having with that?”

Reena said: “I think for transparency I would say it’s really difficult when something like this hasn’t been co-produced. This wasn’t an option to be co-produced. This was a financial agreement entered into the by the local authority with the Department for Education which makes it really hard because we weren’t allowed to speak about it. I think the response has been mixed and I’m trying to be as honest as possible. However I value the Parent Carer Forum but also those voices that come through, I think this is very much about how we reassure but also bring them in as part of that co-production, particularly around the next steps for that targeted fund. And that has already been built into the process. So it’s keeping those lines of communication really open. It’s inviting them to be part of any co-production right from day dot. We’ve worked on our Parent Carer Forum at Bristol Charter as well for our way of working as part of our accelerated programme plan. That’s been really exciting. Last week there was the Send conference that was run by the Parent Carer Forum but supported by colleagues from social care. We had colleagues from the Send team across health, all being involved as part of that. So I think the more that we can generate a holistic approach to now how we move forward the better it will be. For Me that is indicative of how successful we’re going to be with the programme. Our parents and carers are really one way into our young people and recognising their voice. So it’s been mixed but I’m hoping that whilst they’re part of our journey we can take them on that journey as well to ensure that we hear them. We listen to families. They’ve been part of the strategy work that we’re doing. We’re moving in a healthier direction. And I really do value what they bring to the forefront.”

Simon Holmes of St Phillips Marsh Nursery asked: “Sort of picking up a bit on what Merche said. It’s about having the right intervention at the right time and actually often it’s the speed at which you can get things put in place. We put in a lot of work in nurseries and in early year settings for children under the age of five – preschool – last year. I think we completed 12 EHCPs, so those children going into reception classes were already identified and the support there.

“Presumably in this new system they would go in with the EHCP, with the funding and that would therefore meet the need. The the issue I got really at the moment is the amount of time that is taking for children to get the reports from health professionals and from various different agencies in order to get an EHCP. That’s kind of a bit out of our control. I mean that’s something I’ve talked about for a long time. But I think you know we have the problem immediately with these children. We can’t wait till 2030 for a good system. These are the children in front of us now being told well yeah you can’t see a pediatrician for two years, yeah you you can’t have your autism assistant or if you’re having an autism assessment, you can’t access speech and language service. There’s all kinds of anomalies and things which seem that to trip up a smooth process and a clear pathway for these children to get the help they need.

“I think a lot of it’s, we need more coordination with health. I mean one thing that really kind of struck me today when someone, you know a senior person in our setting. was told well we can’t take your evidence because within this process school is not regarded as a profession. Even though with the people that spend, you know, every hour of the day with these children identified these putting in all this paperwork. Then told you don’t count as Professionals in this process.

“I think there’s all sorts of things around the culture and the way things are are structured that really need addressing. That is the only way if that happens that we will get the speed to have the timeliness for the children’s needs to be met when they are. I’m just wondering within this whole process, where does Early Years fit into this and how can we help join things together so there’s a joined up approach with the different agencies.”

Reena replied: “I think again big big questions a bit like Tonya’s. Some of it you know I can’t answer, but wherever we have an opportunity to feed into reforms, particularly with the Department for Education, I think it’s imperative that voice and that element that you’ve just said is recognised.

“I think in terms of how can Early Years support. I will take any help but also you are already built in to the strategy. You’re already built into our next steps and how we’re going to engage with you. Leaders for Early Years within the local authority are already engaged and plugged into the work that we’re doing. Particularly the project managers that are working across maintained nursery schools but also our DSG as well speak regularly so that we’re having that coordinated response.

“We’re engaging with Health and Social care as well. So I’ll feedback some of those comments that you’ve just shared as well. But Simon, you’ll know this I’m a huge advocate for early years you know. I wholeheartedly believe that if we get this right right at the beginning then we only ever advantage our young people to be successful later. You know I’m really passionate about the strategy that we that we invest in, the culture and the practice that we learn from early years because there is some strong work that we need to be able to continue throughout a child’s journey in education. So you’re definitely already built in trust me.”

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