Bristol SEND Support Plans:
What is the Bristol SEND Support Plan?
Where does it originate?
What does this mean for children and young people with Send in Bristol?
It’s been a catastrophic year for the EHCP process in Bristol. The 20 weeks statutory time limit for issuing Education Health Care Plans is taking weeks longer to process than it should do, for some children over 40 and closer to 50 weeks.
Since September last year, Bristol City Council have repeated their hand-wringing with the debatable words ‘unprecedented number of requests’. Despite an initial promise of 20 new EHCP caseworkers to tackle the burden, eventually just 6 new roles were created which were not operational until May 2019.
It’s not just the initial EHCP requests which have met with problems. A huge backlog exists with EHCP annual reviews and for some 18 months, the Top Up process has been at times an uncertain and uneven affair.
Even now, parents are having to go to tribunal for a Needs Assessment having had their request unlawfully turned down. There’s a sneaking suspicion amongst Bristol parents that to succeed with that first request, hugely expensive private educational psychologist assessments are necessary.
So it was with interest that Bristol parents listened to Bristol City Council introduce the new Bristol Send Support Plan (BSSP) at the Bristol Parent Carers’ Annual Participation event this June.
The plan was introduced by Tracy Jones, a SendCo and the vice principle of an academy primary school in East Central Bristol. She is the current chair of the Inclusion in Education Group (IEG).
The Inclusion in Education Group and Inclusion Reference Group
The IEG was originally set up under the name Inclusion Reference Group (IRG). The group was established in 2016 and featured representatives from across the city including headteachers, inclusion leads and SendCos from different phases.
In a response to a question about Special Educational Needs (Send) funding to Councillor Liz Radford on 13 December 2016, Mayor Marvin Rees responded at Member Forum, describing the ‘aim’ of the IRG to be ‘an effective partnership between schools and the Local Authority’. The IRG was to identify ‘best practice’ and ‘advise the Local Authority and ensure support is available to schools’.
The IRG was to oversee the development of an Inclusion Audit, to support schools to ‘evaluate their provision’ and ‘help them create clear action plans for developing their practice within the context of limited resources’.
The SEND Inclusion Audit
The IRG’s SEND Inclusion Audit was initially piloted to 31 schools and then rolled out to more over a six week period.
The audit was designed by the Specialist Education and Access Service and written in conjunction with other teams including Trading with Schools, Early Years and the Birth to 25 Integrated Service.
The report produced from the audit aimed to be part of a ‘self-improvement system’ and offered a ‘snapshot of SEND in Bristol’ at the time. It also aimed to ‘provide information to determine strategy going forward’.
The audit was non-statutory and every mainstream school was invited to take part. A total of 85 schools returned an audit, a return rate of just 62 per cent. The first Statistical First Release is also only based on state funded primary and secondary schools.
Results were found to be in line with data already collected through the School Census. It also indicated that the percentage of school pupils on SEN Support was 1 per cent lower than Bristol’s statistical neighbours of Portsmouth, Southampton, Sheffield, Bournemouth, Brighton and Hove, Leeds, Reading, Coventry, Derby, and Plymouth. It also showed that the percentage of pupils with EHCP/Statements at the time was 0.2 per cent higher that statistical neighbours.
Twelve areas were looked at in the audit and categorised into the following sections:
1. School/Setting Details
2. SEND Cohort Data
5. Policies & Records
6. Local Offer
7. Graduated Approach – SEN Support
8. EHC Plans and Statements
12. CYP in Specific Circumstances
SEND Inclusion Audit Results Compared to School Census Data
The School Census data for Bristol already suggested the city had higher numbers of pupils with Autistic Spectrum Condition compared with its statistical neighbours. School Census information also suggested a ‘significantly’ higher number of pupils with Specific Learning Difficulties than statistical neighbours.
The SEND Inclusion Audit, which only went to mainstream schools and had a return rate of 62 per cent, found ‘significantly less pupils with Specific Learning Difficulties compared to Schools Census data’.
And, the SEND Inclusion Audit found ‘significantly less numbers’ of those with Moderate Learning Difficulties and Social, Emotional and Mental Health Needs, again compared to Schools Census data.
It did acknowledge that ‘if 100 per cent of the SEND Inclusion Audits were returned, the number of pupils with Autistic Spectrum Condition would probably be higher than the number of pupils in the School Census Data.’
It also said that: ‘If 100 per cent of the SEND Inclusion Audits were returned, the number of pupils with Profound & Multiple Learning Difficulties would be significantly higher than the number of pupils in the School Census data.’
But it also says, ‘If 100% of the SEND Inclusion Audits were returned the number of pupils with Speech, Language and Communication Needs would be less than the School Census data suggests.’
And, ‘If 100 per cent of SEND Inclusion Audits were returned the number of pupils in each category would probably be higher than the number collected through the School Census.’
That’s a lot of probably and ‘higher than’ going on as well as data that doesn’t seem to be totally reliable. Key decisions are made on these types of data which is already proving unreliable for planning.
Other findings in the audit showed that schools were less confident about their staff having up-to-date training, having Accessibility Plans, Child in Care Policies and Supporting Pupils at School with Medical Conditions policies.
The audit contains plenty of information about the ups and downs of achievement of Send children with and without EHCP plans, though nothing to horrify or shock. That mostly comes later with the deliberate cuts that were to be made to the High Needs Block.
IRG Top Up Funding Changes and High Needs Block Intervention
By January 2017, The IRG were well away with Send in Bristol with Paul Jacobs as Chair. As well as reviewing the outcomes of the audit and making recommendations, the group was also to look at the process and outcomes of the latest round of Top Up funding. The main aim of this was to make the Top Up system ‘more efficient’.
The expectation of the IRG in looking at the budgets was ‘to help make decisions about where further reductions would be best made to bring the High Needs Budget into line with minimum impact.’
IRG was asked by Bristol School’s Forum in January 2017, to review options for ‘mitigation’ on the High Needs Block. At the time there was a forecast overspend of £3.2m and a deficit of £1.9m from 2015/16.
Some of these mitigations included – to ‘top slice’ the 2017/18 High Needs Block to pay off all or a proportion of
the deficit from 2016/17. This action would require reductions to budgets allocated to all High Needs budget lines including services such as Sensory Support Service, Bristol Autism Team, Youth Offending Team, Alternative Learning Provision Hub and HOPE Virtual School.
Other mitigations suggested including reducing the Top Up spend for 2017/18 by applying further reductions for special schools. The method to do this would be by applying to the DfE for a ‘disapplication to suspend the Minimum Funding Guarantee for Special Schools to allow cuts to be made quicker.‘
More fun options included reducing costs from the Resource base model, reviewing the funding for all Alternative Provision and increase the charge to the host school. All pre and post 16 Independent placements and contributions to joint funding placement would also be reviewed.
The very last suggestion on the Cuts To Do list was ‘Further lobby the EFA re GFE placement funding’.
In early 2017, the IRG further expanded into three task & finish groups: Inclusion Audit, SEND Process and Top Up and Bristol Access Strategy.
Options IRG came up with to reduce the spend on Top Up were:
‘Further review Special School/PRU and Resource Base funding in relation to national benchmarking and introduce revised funding model for September 2017. Work is underway to model a new approach to funding special schools to take account of ‘core costs’ to run a particular school and then revise the top up allocated to individual pupils. A further saving of 5% would equate to a saving of c£300k next year.’
‘Remove Band 1 & 2 funding from primary schools, in line with removal from secondary schools this year. This could save an estimated £200k. However, given the recent reductions in mainstream top up, BCC does not recommend this option.’
Reduce to one top up application round per year with the opportunity to apply for funding outside the main application round only for new arrivals. In theory, this could reduce spend by c£500k but it is likely to shift costs to the next available top up round. This option is not recommended by BCC’
Review the protocols and processes for top up for pupils with no EHCP. This task should be referred to the Top Up task group within the Inclusion Reference Group.
As well as mitigations, savings and Top Up, the Access Strategy Working Group – a working group from the IRG – created the Accessibility Strategy 2017-2019, which set out how Bristol City Council should expect schools to improve access for disabled pupils to school curriculums and facilities in line with Schedule 10 of the Equality Act 2010. The strategy is owned and reviewed by the SEND Challenge Group (a sub group of the Children and Families Partnership Board).
The expectations Bristol City Council has in this document about how schools should meet this include ‘increasing the extent to which disabled pupils can participate in the schools’ curriculums’. And ‘All pupils should have access to a suitable local provision.’
Bristol parents’ current experience of how the Equality Act 2010 operates within Bristol schools is not positive, with a predicted shortfall of special school places coming to fruition this year. But, the IRG’s influence across Bristol Send, Send funding and disability equality runs deep.
Nearing the end of September 2017, the High Needs deficit recovery Action Plus that was developed by Local Authority officers was informed by the work of the IRG.
A project group was established and chaired by the then Service Director: Education & Skills, to take the actions of the plan forward, monitoring its impact.
The six key work areas addressed by this action plan were:
1. Core Places
2. SEN Top Ups
3. Alternative Learning Provision Top-ups
4. Other SEN Provision (e.g. out of authority placements)
5. Other Alternative Learning Provision (eg hospital tuition)
6. High Needs Services
Considering ‘value for money’ and ‘improving practice’ were the ‘guiding principles’ agreed by Bristol Schools’ Forum for the action plan.
Savings measures and mitigations amounting to £4.9m were found, which would ‘slightly exceed’ that year’s High Needs Budget deficit, but not address the historic deficit. It wouldn’t address the ‘growing pressures’ coming in 2018/19 which the Dedicated School Grant (DSG) funding would match.
The £4.9M savings would not be immediate. They would ‘take time to develop and implement’ containing ‘risks’ and were ‘not guaranteed’ to be delivered. The IRG did note that ‘whilst actions specific to achieve savings are clear within this report they should be considered alongside the other DSG funding blocks and changes proposed within those to fully assess impact and achieve sustainable savings across the whole DSG.’
Bristol School’s Forum decided that ‘delivery on this deficit recovery plan is a priority and requires significant work across all schools and service delivery teams. It was to be funded from the SEND grant.
And Still Working on Top Up Funding Savings…
The IRG working group on mainstream Top Up issues, came up with the following possible options:
Implementation of fixed budgets
Removal of support for those in Band 2 (primary) without EHCP
Aligning funding with EHCPs
Annette Jones and Sue Roger’s 27 September 2017 High Needs Block update to Bristol Schools’ Forum noted that ‘The view of officers is that it could be counter-productive on our inclusion strategy to cut mainstream school top up significantly further. So our recommendation is not to pursue a fixed budget or the removal of band 2 but to instead focus on ensuring that funding is only allocated where an EHCP is in place. The impact of achieving this is likely to cause some capacity pressures.”
The IRG’s own group meeting on 21 September 2017 submitted minutes to forum, noting that ‘proposals do not address the carry forward deficit however feel that the focus on achieving in year alignment is reasonable. However they remain concerned that the mitigating proposals do not go far enough to achieve the HNB deficit recovery plan.’
Bristol ‘Concerned’ Regarding High Needs Budget Overspend
The Chief Finance Officer for Bristol City Council became concerned at the time regarding the overspent High Needs Budget. It was projected to have a cumulative overspend of £7.7m by the end of 2017/18 and ‘which could rise to £12.9m, if mitigating actions and savings measures are not swiftly put in place. While the action plan is
identifying what could be done to offset the pressures, few of these have been put in place and many have long lead-in times. There is a risk that some of these measures will be delayed or there will be practical difficulties of bringing them to effect. This would have implications for the wider DSG position and potentially the Council’s budget.’
The East Wind of Send cuts which would form the basis of the successful 2018 Judicial Review against Bristol City Council, was firmly in motion. The IRG was fully involved on how to make them as effective for Bristol City Council as possible.
More IRG Top Up Recommendations Come
In November 2017, IRG looked at the breakdown of applications made for Top Up funding panels for mainstream schools. There had been a total of 245 applications submitted for that panel week, with 140 of them being new applications. The projected spend ranged from £483,231 – £1,560,500.
After examination, IRG came up with recommendations for the LA and were agreed as:
Top Up reviews will be carried out as normal.
For new applications, allocations will be at the lowest amount of the band applied for and will be allocated for one year only (exceptions include Children in Care or pupils with a Physical Disability/Difficulty, Hearing Impairment or Visual Impairment)
Payments will start at the beginning of the new term, January 2018
High Needs Concern in Council
The following month at the 12 December 2017 Member Forum, High Needs Budgets were causing concern again. Councillor Clare Campion-Smith (Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze) asked a question to the mayor: ‘Officers currently forecast a £7m overspend for the overall DSG budget for 2017/18, mostly due to underfunding/increased demand of the high needs block. What proposals are being made to reduce this overspend?’
The direct response given was: ‘Nationally the Dedicated Schools Grant is overspent due to the under-resourcing of the High Needs Block (HNB) in each authority area. A current study has found that this equates to the region of £250m across the country. To address the significant overspend officers have worked to create a HNB deficit recovery plan which seeks to address the in- year deficit and have consulted further with the schools forum to address the carry forward pressure.
‘The HNB deficit recovery plan has identified savings across all 6 areas which total £4.95m annual spend over a 3 year period and work is ongoing across all areas. Progress against the HNB deficit recovery plan is monitored fortnightly by officers and through the Inclusion reference group (IRG). Work will continue on the HNB deficit plan as a strategic priority for 17/18 and 18/19, and nationally there is a considerable pressure on the DFE to correct the funding position.’
Additional Savings ‘planned’
In January 2018, reductions to the High Needs Budget had been made, with additional savings ‘planned’.
LA officers met with the IRG on 09 January 2018. Bristol Schools’ Forum noted that month that the group ‘continues to meet to support the School Forum and the Local Authority through a partnership model. The IRG feedback on these proposals, which were explained in outline form, was broadly positive to achieving the plan and a balanced budget in the 3 years. They remain concerned regarding the number and the potential impact of the identified risks but continue to be very engaged in continuing to seek solutions with the LA. The IRG are actively pursuing increased opportunities for school to school support.’
Concern Raised About Top Up Funding Cuts
In a High Needs Budget update to Bristol Schools’ Forum in January 2018, minutes for the meeting of 22/11/2017 noted that Chris Pring then headteacher of Cabot Primary said it was ‘encouraging’ to come in £1m ahead ‘but this has meant schools having less money not getting the Top Up they need..’
Annette Jones Service Manager for Additional Learning Needs at the time advised that there is ‘a need to look at mainstream schools and how they utilise their funding to best support young people. The top up panels do look robustly at the requests but have not been able to meet them all.’
Colin Butterworth Governor at Endeavour Trust ‘welcomed the good progress that has been made but noted that the 3 year plan depends on a huge amount of savings. He hoped there was a risk assessment on the assumptions with contingency plans and accountability.’
Cllr Ruth Pickersgill Governor for Rosemary Nursery noted that ‘we are reducing top-up spending by £1m but how do we measure the impact on the schools and children and the quality of inclusion?’
Concerns were clearly raised by the forum. Annette Jones replied that the IRG’s inclusion audit had been issued, which will ‘give an idea of the impact’ and the IRG will also look at this.
Cllr Anna Keen Cabinet Member for Education & Skills added that the SEND Peer review ‘looked at all elements and there was positive feedback about our strengths. The LA is very mindful of impact of taking money out.’
And it wasn’t just mainstream schools that are ‘hurting from cuts in budgets’. Special schools were hurting too, Aileen Morrison Headteacher, St Matthias Park pointed out.
On the 03 August 2018, it was revealed that a group of Send parents that brought about a Judicial Review against Bristol City Council the month before regarding cuts to the High Needs Block budget by over £5M was successful.
The Inclusion in Education Group
From September 2018, post judicial Review, The Inclusion Reference Group had a name change. It was now called The Inclusion in Education Group. This group was to drive and ‘oversees the changes required to fully implement the SEND reforms (outlined by the Children and Families Act 2014 and the 0-25 SEND Code of Practice 2015)’.
It was now working with officers on ‘a series of relevant work streams’ such as High Needs Budget support services, Top-Up funding for mainstream and specialist education settings, Post 16 provision for young people with SEND, and Alternative Learning models. A three year recovery plan was in the process of being co-developed with a sub-group of Bristol Schools’ Forum.
The key objective for the same group was apparently no longer about focusing on making cuts to the High Needs Budget, but on efficiency. It was now to ‘ensure’ the budget was ‘sufficient’ in meeting the ‘needs and costs of associated Children with Send’. It’s aims were to make sure that the ‘ongoing demand’ upon the budget was ‘sustainable’ in the long term.
The work of the IEG also involved establishing working groups that focused on the Early Intervention Base (EIB) pilot, the development of the Bristol SEND Support Plan, driving the Local Area EHCP Improvement Plan and starting to look at new models for Top Up.
January 2019 Transformation
January 2019 was all about transformation and consultation. A high needs transformation programme launched, with four projects: top-up funding, alternative provision, hospital education and support services.
The aim of the work was to look at ‘how best to improve outcomes for children and young people, but may result in lower spend over time, if investment is made in activities most likely to promote such outcomes.’
All the High Needs Transformation projects were to have:
Full project plans
Stakeholder engagement/ surveys
Equalities Checks and Impact assessments which are updated as the projects progress
Progression of drafts through Council Decision Pathways (Governance) for sign-off by Finance, Legal, HR and Public
Public consultation, with alternative formats were necessary
Sign off of final models through Council Decision Pathways (Governance)
Workforce development prior to implementation
A period of review following implementation in order to assess and evaluate impact
An Engagement Survey on the four key areas ran from 30/11/18 until 13/01/2019. Top Up Stakeholder Engagement Events took place, involving professionals and some parent and carer engagement.
Bristol Send Support Plan
With the High Needs Transformation projects, consultation and feedback, a long history of reducing Top Up Funding and advising on cuts to the High Needs Budget ultimately ruled unlawful and overturned at Judicial Review and a LA experiencing EHCP crisis, the IEG finally launched their Bristol Send Support Plan to parents and carers in June 2019.
In a presentation, parents and carers were assured the BSSP was not a cost cutting method, or a delaying tactic for EHC Needs Assessment Requests. But, within the Send parent carer community, there remains much scepticism.
The BSSP is one working document that’s reviewed and updated as needed – at least annually. It is valid from Birth – 25 years. If it’s starting to sound a little EHCPish, that’s because it very much feels that way.
The BSSP aims to provide ‘clear understanding of expectations for top up and needs assessments, additionally cutting down on ‘unnecessary’ paperwork’.
The new plan is for any child who requires a non statutory plan – not legally enforceable like an EHCP – or, a ‘pre EHCP’ due to ‘high/complex’ level of need.
The plan would also aid the administration behind applications for top up funding and school requests for Needs Assessment. It has been stressed that the BSSP will not affect a parent’s right to be able to make a parental request at any time.
The BSSP has been 18 months in development and has been trialled and amended by a group of SendCos.
It’s a 22 page document which will also include ‘supporting’ documents such as educational psychologist reports and diagnosis letters.
It is already being used by SendCos in Bristol and in September 2019 will be fully implemented.
Inclusion in Education Group Members Behind the BSSP
The Chair of the IEG is currently Tracy Jones, the Vice Principle and SendCo of Bannerman Road, with Vicky Jervis from Bristol Inclusion Services as Vice Chair.
Representatives on the board include those of a primary SendCo, Secondary SendcCo, Primary Heads’ Association Bristol, an academy secondary headteacher, post-16 rep, Special School Partnership, ALP & EIB reps, Mary Taylor a Bristol City Council SEND Business Manager, the Acting Head of Schools Partnerships, SENDOP Project Manager, Early Years Inclusion, Bristol City Council Employment and Skills, Hope Virtual School, Sendiass service and Bristol Parent Carers Rep.
Is the BSSP a Good Thing?
The Bristol Send Support Plan, may be good for making sure that all schools are implementing the correct Send provision for each child, albeit in a massive undertaking of paperwork and in a short turnaround time from sign-off to formal use. But again, it comes down to accountability. Schools that are good with Send will do this well. Schools that are apathetic about Send won’t do this well. The BSSP won’t change the quality of Send support in schools that just don’t want Send.
It also can’t be stressed enough that children with complex needs which cannot be met through the notional SEN budget really need an EHCP. That is a process which in Bristol which currently takes at least an academic year, not including any time spent in appeal, mediation and tribunal.
The plan doesn’t come with any funding, it will not get a child a place in a specialist setting and is in no way legally enforceable.
Parents who are not confident may worry about damaging relationships with schools by going for an EHCP against a BSSP.
The plan could potentially be used by Bristol City Council to delay the EHCP process further by accident or design.
And, not forgetting that the Inclusion in Education Group who created the BSSP, came to this through a history of unlawful Send cuts and aims to dramatically reduce the pressure of Top Up funding. Much like the War Doctor in Doctor Who, it hasn’t been born from a good place and probably won’t last longer than a one-off anniversary special.
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