Send School Places Shortage Not Reflected in DfE Statistics

The Bristol special school places crisis is not reflected in official figures sent to the DfE by Bristol City Council

A lack of specialist school places for Bristol’s Send (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) pupils has passed crisis point, leaving children and young people without a school place that their Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs) state that they need by law.

It became a hot political talking point, brought into the light through a Send Alliance set up by Send groups working together in Bristol. The alliance included well-known campaigners including Autism Independence, Bristol Send Justice and Clean Up Send.

The places crisis made the anticipated release of the SEN2 data by the Department for Education (DfE) this week eagerly awaited. But the release has thrown further confusion and questions on the reliability of Bristol City Council’s data and transparency.

According to the data submitted by Bristol, just 2 pupils of compulsory school age and in education were waiting for provision in January this year. A further 14 pupils of compulsory school age were not in education and awaiting provision.

Three were above compulsory school age and not in education. A total of 7 were in ‘elective’ home education. Some 15 had other arrangements made by Bristol City Council. A six had other arrangements made by parents. And, one had been permanently excluded.

When it comes to NEET – aged 16 to 18 and not in education, employment or training – the figures have gone from 120 to 229 between 2019 and 2021.

The figures just don’t add up but the historical Bristol context of the lack of places does support the fact that 250 pupils have been left without a school place.

In March 2020, the lack of specialist school places was raised in an Extraordinary People Scrutiny Commission meeting at City Hall in Bristol. Send parent and co-founder of Bristol Send Justice, Sally Kent told councillors and education officers: “There’s no school places. The bomb has gone off and just everyone’s like quietly stepping around it.”

Kent again raised the special school places issues and the new SEN2 data figures from Bristol on Twitter this week.

Further upset was caused around the lack of Send places this year after Mayor Marvin Rees dropped clues that the administration considered specialist education to be ‘segregation’. This was something he told Send parents on both Facebook and later reiterated on Radio Bristol.

On a Facebook live in March 2021 he said: “But there seems to be a bit of a difference in the kind of sense of what people need. We do recognise that some people will need specialist places, but actually our view is that for many of those children, where they can, mainstream education with adequate support, rather than segregation in specialist education, is the best place from which they can not only get support for their academic journey, but their social journey and learning those social skills they are going to need once they leave the education system as well.”

On a further Radio Bristol interview with John Darvall, Rees told a Send parent: “Every child in the city has a place. I think what we’ve had a difference over is whether they should have a place in a specialist school and we you know we’ve what I’ve been clear saying is I think where a specialist school, where an EHCP shows that a child should have a specialist school then that should be provided and in our Cabinet we put £28 million pounds into providing those additional specialist school places.”

What’s clear, is that going by the January figures, even though they are not correct, the data supplied does support that pupils of compulsory school age and with EHCPs are not in education. In direct contradiction of Rees’ words.

The ‘250’ has turned into a War of Words, exacerbated by Bristol’s local election this month. It started in September 2020, after Cabinet papers revealed there were 190 pupils with EHCPs requiring specialist places but with none available.

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It stated: ‘The council have not got spaces for these young people as the current SEND capacity is full.’

The report went on to say that Bristol City Council had also needed to place 124 young people with independent providers during 2019/20. It revealed that approximately 250 additional young people with EHCPs to be approved within the next few months would also need appropriate education settings.

But former Cabinet member with responsibility for Education and Skills, Councillor Anna Keen blasted Local Democracy Reporter Amanda Cameron, for reporting on this lack of specialist school places, asking for corrections.

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She quoted Cameron’s Tweet and stated: ‘These figures in this article are completely incorrect and we have asked for corrections and an apology to the SEND community for this misrepresentation – which I hope is accidental rather than deliberate.’

But by February 2021, as predicted in Cabinet papers, the number of Send pupils without a school place grew to 250. This was confirmed by Keen herself in a statement to reporter Ellie Pipe at Bristol 247.

Keen told her: “Today in Bristol there are 250 children and young people who are eligible for specialist settings. However, this number changes regularly because the assessment and review processes for education, heath and care (EHC) plans are ongoing. Bristol City Council strives for full inclusion for all citizen and therefore it is to be expected that in some instances a mainstream school with specialist support is a more appropriate education setting for individual children and young people.”

There’s been historic unreliability around Send data in the city. An independent Send data review commissioned by Keen in 2019 concluded: ‘There is strong evidence that the migration planning was not effective enough, causing a lack of operational and management reporting, impacting on the inconsistency of data and actual performance levels.’

And in March 2020, the Director for Education and Skills, Alison Hurley came up against unreliable data again. Former People Scrutiny Commission chair, Councillor Claire Hiscott also asked for more clarity around information presented and Councillor Tim Kent said he had ‘real problems’ with given answers because they ‘really cannot be true’.

Where the 250 pupils needing specialist school places according to their EHCP have been buried in the SEN2 data isn’t clear. What is clear is that Bristol City Council’s Send data continues to be questionable and does not help the 250 children and young people desperately needing school places.