City Hall Bristol Schools Forum

Opinion

Cabinet papers released at the end of last week finally gave the Bristol Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) community clarity around a failure in specialist place planning by Bristol City Council.

Parents, carers and activists have been aware there was a major problem with school places, but until a report dated 01 September 2020 was prepared for Cabinet this month, nobody had been able to trace and log official statistics.

There are currently 190 pupils in Bristol with an EHCP entitling them to specialist provision, yet nowhere to place them.

The planning disaster will be compounded in the next few months by an anticipated additional 250 pupils who will also need a placement.

To put this in context, for September 2020, the Planned Admission Number for the following Bristol secondary schools was: Blaise High School 189, Bridge Learning Campus 180, Bristol Free School 200, Bristol Metropolitan Academy 180, City Academy 195 and Merchant’s Academy 182.

This puts the current number of Send children with an EHCP and no school place at the same size as a year 7 secondary school intake. A whole year’s worth.

Recently, there was a large campaign by Bristol parents to back the planning of a new secondary school in Central East Bristol on the Silverthorne Lane development. The fact that Send parents have been unable to mount the same level of campaign mirrors the disparity and systemic barriers in education that their disabled children face and their families struggle to overcome.

Send parents are spread across Bristol. They are often isolated, though connected through social media. Their time and energy is spent supporting their children, some with complex needs and difficulties at home unsupported.

They are fighting multiple battles which may include getting EHCP draft plans lawfully written, running Send Tribunal appeals, dealing with schools, the endless phone calls and emails to and from professionals who won’t get back to you or only get back to you with a hit and run message at 16.55.

They may be trying to work full time or part time whilst supporting siblings who may or may not be disabled. They have the day-to-day household to run, other extended family commitments or caring roles. They may also be disabled themselves. They may have serious financial hardship, housing issues, perhaps even be homeless in temporary accommodation.

There simply isn’t the time, emotion or strength to then coordinate an accessible meeting spot in Bristol that every one with their varying levels of needs and disabilities can attend to raise awareness. The support they get is online from other parents who have been through the same situation. Did I also mention the prohibitive legal costs associated with all of this?

In 2018, I applied for an EHCP for both of my children who had been let down by mainstream Send provision. The process to obtain an EHCP took one year, followed by three further appeals to the First Tier Send Tribunal regarding both provision and placement. Their school places are due to start in September 2020. It’s been over two years and we still haven’t started a school place.

This means that for a generation of Send pupils in Bristol, they have had a year-long EHCP process which has not resulted in a much needed school place and a further wait of a year to force one through tribunal if they are lucky.

The lost time in the middle will see children and young people like mine in limbo. A place where they may have legally protected education in an EHCP, but no setting to provide it.

I’ve also learnt that when you start to raise issues publicly about these problems, you then run the risk of being labelled an abusive parent – though after several months, no one could evidence the fact I was abusing my children to escalate it to social services. Funny that because I wasn’t abusing them. I just wanted them to go to school.

The reason this happens is because parents want their children in school and where there is disability, reasonable adjustments put in place. These adjustments might be as simple as a key to the disabled toilet. This is what gets you labelled as ‘abusive’. True story.

Many children – like mine- will have remained in unsuitable mainstream settings where schools have been unable or unwilling to implement the Section F of an EHCP. And even with the letters spilling out across the last few sentences, I can hear the screen shot and paste of disgruntled schools who do not recognise my version of events, despite neither of my children setting foot in their named schools since October and November of 2019.

This has left children and young people drowning in the murky world of Bristol’s Alternative Provision (AP). To be fair, some of it is excellent. Some of it is good. Some of it should be shut down. AP does not have to be registered with Ofsted. Imagine how many parents in mainstream would be happy for their children to have part time hours being taught in unregistered settings.

The political education sphere of Bristol is also a murky one. Let’s not forget the Bristol Inclusion Reference Group, which was comprised of Bristol educationalists, including headteachers, inclusion leads and SendCos all being responsible for cuts to Top-Up funding leading to the successful 2018 Judicial Review.

For a while, the same names cropped up in the same places across the many tangents, groups, partnerships and boards. The result of this was cuts, lack of planning, no Send school places, constant tinkering with Top Up and ultimately, an Ofsted and CQC Send report in late 2019 which was not impressed with the city.

The problem with the funding ask for Cabinet this month is that it will be passed because the places are needed. There might even be a few carefully chosen words about how this will benefit vulnerable children. The same vulnerable children the council did not care about until they were finally shamed back in 2018. Even after this the current Executive Director of People called this a ‘detraction’ and the highly paid interim Director of Education’s swansong petulantly labelled it an unlawful result.

The lack of continuing accountability surrounding these big asks of Cabinet – as was the AP ask last month – is bizarre. Chucking vast sums of money – millions and millions – at the moment towards problems that have been compounded by Bristol City Council and its highly paid interim directors and executive directors without strong questions and scrutiny shows a complete lack of care and accountability.

A generation of Send children in Bristol have been let down by Send failures. A total of 190 Send children have no school place. Many have missed out on years of their education having fought through tribunal and against schools who do not want them. The only way this has been allowed to happen is lack of inclusion, lack of care, deliberate systemic barriers placed by those working in and governing the system.

The message to Bristol’s children and young people who have special educational needs and disabilities has been that they do not matter. That their education does not matter. They are so unimportant in Bristol that they do not even need a school. They do not deserve a school. And nobody needs to be held accountable for creating a city where disability is not important.

The vast inequalities across all those with protected characteristics in this city is shameful. This can also be seen in the Fixed Term Exclusion statistics for the city, where if you have a special educational need, come from a black background, a travelling background or are entitled to Free School Meals, you are the least desirable pupil in the school and are most likely to be excluded.