Bristol Top Up Funding Cuts to Specialist Schools Threat by Education Lead

  • Bristol Top Up Funding Cuts to Specialist Schools
  • Former Director of Education updates Bristol Schools Forum on DBV for Send programme
  • Top Up Funding highlighted as an area of concern
  • Bristol educationalists and Trade Unionists express concern over the state of SEND in Bristol
  • Councillor Asher Craig talks of hopes of pulling 50 per cent of Top Up funding from specialist settings or cutting Top Up Funding altogether

Bristol’s Cabinet education lead Councillor Asher Craig, has expressed her views that half of additional Send funding to support children with complex needs at specialist schools in the city should be removed and given to mainstream schools instead.

The councillor also insinuated that if she believed there wasn’t a case to continue with Top Up Funding in Bristol at all, the Send funding to help all schools support children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities might be pulled entirely.

I would I’d like to take maybe half of that funding that we are giving to specialist providers and you know transfer that money and put that money into the mainstream School sector”

Councillor Asher Craig

There was no indication of how children in receipt of this funding would be supported should their funding at both mainstream and specialist be removed entirely.

The comments echoed previous attempts to cut Top Up Funding in the past, which led to Bristol City Council losing a Judicial Review after attempting to unlawfully remove £5m of Send funding from the city’s budget.

The issue of Top Up Funding came as part of a presentation by former interim Director of Education Richard Hanks, to Bristol Schools Forum this week.

The council manager was giving an update on Bristol’s application for Delivering Better Value in SEND (DBV).

The DBV programme from the Department for Education (DfE) aims to support Local Authorities (LA) improve their delivery of Send services. Bristol City Council is one of 55 LAs selected due to having one of the highest budget deficits in 2020/21.

Delivering Better Value in SEND Update

In the update Hanks talked Forum members through the city’s current SEND statistics as well as details around the grant process.

The council had to work through three different modules ahead of the application, involving understanding the volume of support for the city’s Send population historically as well as future predictions. The council then did ‘deeper dives into understanding’ current processes and outcomes, how they are working and looking at diagnostics, data and case studies. Finally, the council had to look for practical solutions to implement.

Interim Director of Education, Richard Hanks told School Forum members: “The work that we did around the Deep Dives also brought together three key areas that we wanted to look at and suggests that if we did work in these areas it’d make a significant impact on on the quality of the provision and the value for money that we get from our spend on the High Need Block.

“Inclusive mainstream settings, looking at their quality consistency and culture and relationships with parents etc. Utilizing an awareness of support across Bristol. So that support being provided at the right time and right support at the right time, and that parental confidence in mainstream provision. So making sure that communication and co-production is is embedded in the work that we do.

“So, the Grant application is being developed now to go in, however given the design of the funding program, there’s likely to be two key themes that we were going to be looking at so taking all of that evidence together we’re going to be looking at strength in the relationships between school, Family and Child so we’re improving those experiences for children we’re sending mainstream settings.

“And then strengthening this relationship between schools and the wider system. So we have that transparent consistent and financially sustainable processes that are underpinned by some robust monitoring and accountability.”

For the grant application, the council looked at where children with EHCPs are and how much it was costing the High Needs Block.

The council’s data showed that 67 per cent of active EHCPs were held by pupils in special schools and mainstream schools. A 35 per cent of those pupils are in maintained or academy special schools and 32 per cent of them are in mainstream schools.

The largest expenditure from the HNB – £33.8m – went to specialist schools, representing 41 per cent of the block’s unmitigated expenditure.

Independent non-maintained schools were not made a focus, with just £11.9m of the funding going to pupils with EHCPS in these settings. Forum members heard that this meant ‘deeper analysis’ went to Send spending at mainstream and specialist settings.

The papers submitted to Schools Forum and being discussed at the meeting showed that Bristol has a lower rate of children in mainstream schools than most statistical neighbours as well as the England average.

Bristol Top Up Funding

When looking at the number of children and young people in Bristol on funded Send support, the paper’s author assumes the city’s statistical neighbours ‘do not provide non-statutory top-ups’.

Top Up Funding is additional money education settings can receive to support pupils with complex needs requiring additional specialist help with their education. It must only be used for the pupils for whom it has been applied for. This will be covered in more detail further down.

The council will be planning to use this type of data shown in the table below when assessing the benefits of Top Up Funding.

But, a cursory ten second Google showed Bristol is not the only city that does Top Up Funding. In fact, its statistical neighbour Sheffield, does indeed do its own version of Top Up funding.

Sheffield also works with its Parent Carer Forum no less, something Bristol City Council refuses to do. Sheffield presumably does so without blocking the forum’s DfE funding and conducting unlawful covert surveillance on its management.

This significant inaccuracy in the papers is important because with current Send financing, organisation and potentially Top Up Funding on the table for future improvement, leaving out the fact that some of Bristol’s statistical neighbours do have Top Up Funding might be construed as misleading.

Data in the Bristol School Forum papers also shows the number of children in specialist settings in Bristol with an EHCP appears to have fallen. The 2023 papers show 35 per cent of these pupils are in a maintained specialist setting. However, a council strategy presented to People Scrutiny Commission in July 2019 shows that at the time, there were 42.2 per cent of children and young people with EHCPs in specialist and 26.4 per cent in mainstream.

In the 2019 meeting, Sally Kent of Bristol Send Justice, asked where children with EHCPs currently being finalised would be placed, due to the growing crisis of specialist school places.

She asked: ‘There are 558 EHC plans currently waiting to be finalised by Bristol SEN department. Statistically 42% of children with plans in Bristol are in special schools. Bristol Special schools are full. Going by Bristol statistics, 42% of those 558 plans will need a special placement. Where will these children be placed?’

The answer – signed off by former Interim Director of Education, Alan Stubbersfield, showed the director failing to recognise the numbers in his own report.

He said: ‘The 42% figure of special/mainstream EHCP placement looks accurate.  However we do not recognise the 558 figure.  I am advised that we have 84 plans currently waiting to be finalised.  It might be that the 500 number relates to plans awaiting annual review processing, of which the great majority would not involve a placement change.’


The apparent drop in the specialist school population presented at the January 2023 Bristol Schools Forum, didn’t get past the eagle-eyed Kent, ruminating on the significant drop on Twitter.

Kent said: “Watching Bristol school forum – currently 35 % of kids with EHCPs in Bristol attend special schools, it was 42% in 2019. The % of kids attending special schools in Bristol is decreasing fairly rapidly…’

So how does this link to Top Up funding? In Bristol, Send pupils who need more support over above what is Ordinarily Available – most likely pupils needing an EHCP but not actually having one can get Top Up funding. Pupils receiving Top Up should be on a Bristol Support Plan. These were brought in through the Inclusion in Education group (IEG) – formerly the Inclusion Reference Group – who had been tasked with making cuts to Top Up funding which led to the 2018 Judicial Review.

Bristol City Council Support Plans Disclosure

A freedom of Information (FOI) request disclosed to Hayley Evans on What Do They Know in 2021, showed a cumulative total of 1022 pupils in mainstream settings receiving Top Up funding with a Bristol Support Plan. With Bristol Support Plans being non-statutory, their funding through Top Up Funding much less their continuation, has no guarantee. This leaves pupils vulnerable to changes around Send funding, cuts and mitigations.

When it came to questions about the paper, Trade Unionist Tom Merchant asked: “You were suggesting with the, your mentioning of discretionary payments that the you have. Are you suggesting that there is a chance that that you may be rolling back some of the extensive extra Send? I know you’re saying you’re applying for a grant but is there a feeling from the council that perhaps we might not, we should not be doing this?”

Hanks replied: “No, the piece of work we’re doing is we’ve obviously been trying to establish the actual cost the actual funding that we’re using and where it’s being targeted. So this has been about the analysis of that. What we have identified in the DSG management plan and the proposals that were put forward in the engagement process that I did during October into November was around the fact that we need to look at it and understand how it’s working and then we did put it forward as a proposal and the engagement process.

“People were happy that we we needed to look at that in more detail. We need to understand the impact of that funding and how well it is supporting those those children, young people and is it you know, is it being targeted at the right children in terms of their, should they be going through a needs assessment, should they be utilizing element one and two funding that comes through the school’s budget for example. So there’s work to do but there’s no decision about what we’re doing yet. We’re still looking at this in detail and then the implementation plan will be coming back as part of the grant application. But we don’t have any any clear plan about what we’re saying we’re doing with that at the moment. It’s just really to establish the picture in Bristol and understand it in comparison to our stat neighbors for example like like the graph identified.”

Head of St Phillips Marsh Nursery, Simon Holmes asked: “It was the statistic that Bristol has more children in special schools than statistical neighbors that’s correct yeah? I understood that? So is there like, what’s the reason for that? And I’m kind of thinking from where I sit and what I see. We all know early intervention makes the biggest difference. But when we’re having children where we’re being told there’s a three-year wait to see a pediatrician, those three years for an Autism assessment, those are crucial years where had the intervention been made earlier, was there more support around the family, EHCPs were in place, the mainstream schools would be better able to support.

“But at the moment, we’re getting a situation where some of our families don’t feel their children are wanted in the school they’re going to because they can see this child’s needs and they feel they won’t be able to meet them. So we’re getting an increasing number of children saying they want to stay in nursery. So we’ve got more children now in nursery schools who should be in reception. And it’s a really complex picture because again, I think I’m sounding like a broken record, but you know you shouldn’t wait three years for a pediatrician report. You know we know what these children, we can see these children’s needs, but as someone else has to do it somewhere up the line and you have to wait years for it. It’s so frustrating for parents, so I can see why they would be unhappy you know. And it does feel like that’s probably, it’s in the end you know special school is like the answer because we’re not meeting it where we could because of things not working together properly. is that possible?”

Hanks replied: “I think you’ve articulated some of the some of the reasons quite clearly Simon. Yes and I think it’s that it aligns with some of the findings from the inspection as well. Those are definitely factors and if you think about the inspection outcomes it’s around a lack of confidence in the system more generally. And that is part of what we are needing to do around making sure we have that, in that consistent inclusive approach across all of our schools in the city. That what and and you know obviously the contributions towards assessments etc because what that’s leading to is we need to look at all of this in terms of we’re building that confidence that that inclusive practice across the sector so that parents aren’t having to feel they have to resort to specialist provision or sometimes even an EHCP in order to get their child’s needs met. So these factors are all in there so I think that’s, I agree with you Simon. I believe those are contributing factors to it yeah.”

The Bristol Schools Forum meeting where the Top Up Funding Cuts to Specialist Schools was made by Councillor Craig

It was then that Councillor Asher Craig announced her idyll of removing Top Up Funding from Send pupils with complex needs in specialist provision. It has been a feature of both the Mayor – Marvin Rees and Deputy Mayor – Asher Craig’s apparent educational ideology that specialist provision is segregation.

Craig continued with the theme at Schools Forum saying : “I just really wanted to kind of reiterate the point that Simon were was making and that the other question that was asked about you know what’s the council going to do particularly in relation to the non-statutory Top-Up funding. I think you know before any final decision is made on what we do or don’t do we need, I need to know is the extra money that we have been paying out, what difference is it actually making? We still got a huge uphill task I think around the parental confidence in the mainstream provision, because if you’re talking, you know, when I’m talking to parents with children with special educational needs, because of their experiences in some schools you know they’re all just like running towards the specialist provision.

“You know I have always been of the view I would I’d like to take maybe half of that funding that we are giving to specialist providers and you know transfer that money and put that money into the mainstream School sector. But there are really good areas of good practice I think but this isn’t something that’s going to resolve ourselves overnight and like we heard, we have to bring our parents with us and kind of raise that confidence and work with you all as schools to look at what is required, what do you need to be able to deliver a much more inclusive provision for our SEN children.

I just wanna I want to see the spend going a completely different way and pull more money into to mainstream provision.”

Councillor Asher Craig

“I think maybe when you meet at the next meeting I’ll have had a view and I’ll be talking to Abi and Richard about what’s coming through this and we can have a straight up discussion. Because I think I said it at the last meeting we are one of very few local authorities who still provide this and I am given our financial challenges I also have to consider is you know if it’s making a difference and it’s a positive difference then yeah there’s an argument to keep. But if if it isn’t we need to have a conversation about how how we’re going to manage this.

“So it’s it’s not no and it’s not yes it’s wait and see but yeah I just need more of the detail about what’s happening with that that Top-Up and what impact it’s making. But like I said I just wanna I want to see the spend going a completely different way and pull more money into to mainstream provision.”

The application for approval will be going to Cabinet on 04 February 2023 with the final grant application having to be made by 24 February 2023. If Bristol City Council is successful with their application, they will receive funding of £1m in March 2023. Implementation of the plan behind the grant application would then begin in April 2023.

The full meeting can be viewed here:

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