Comment by Jen Smith
National Offer Day is one of joy and disappointment to many families across the country. It will be a stressful morning for parents in Central East in particular, where a mainstream crisis has arisen due to the failure of the Oasis Temple Quarter School opening.
But for Send parents, some 250 of them in Bristol, it will just be another day that their child will wake up without the offer of a place to which they are legally entitled.
There just aren’t enough special school places or resource base places in Bristol and other Local Authorities are also struggling. This will leave children potentially remaining in nursery, in year six, in alternative provision, Bristol Hospital Education, forced home education or in a mainstream school which has already been deemed unable to meet needs.
The risks of this includes not being able to access or participate in education, Fixed Term Exclusions, Permanent Exclusion, anxiety based school avoidance, Managed Moves and Disability Discrimination.
Not having a school to go to has the potential to impact upon children’s education, their life chances, their development, their wellbeing, their friendships.
That a Local Authority has failed to create school places for these pupils which blocks them fair and equal access to education is nothing less than disability discrimination. This discrimination has resulted from years of inclusion failure in Bristol. We all know the 2014 Send changes were not adequately funded by central Government. But what Bristol has is a crisis within a crisis, a failure to admit mistakes, a failure to be completely transparent with data and a failure to hold anyone accountable for the continuing disaster which will impact upon pupils for many years.
A letter from the Director of Education to Bristol councillors, emerged on Twitter last week. In it, Alison Hurley said that pupils with Send requiring special school places would have to remain or go to mainstream schools with an ‘improved system of support’ until an appropriate specialist setting is available.
In the letter Hurley said ‘there remains a gap between demand for placements and supply in the city, which has been widened due to delays in capital programmes, due to Covid-19.’
Whilst the pandemic has certainly had an impact on the Director’s ability to increase the number of special school places, the lack of places available to pupils was a problem and one foreseen long before Hurley came into post.
Sendist has become a key part of the EHCP process. It’s not just EHCP provision being fought for through lengthy and potentially expensive legal action – it’s a fight for a school place. Sendist is also a delaying tactic for Local Authorities, giving them a desperate chance to gain extra months to find a school place all at the expense of the family involved. Most answers to Send related issues tends to be Judicial Review, again more expenditure for families just to get basic access to education.
It’s not good for Local Authority budgets either, with Top Up funding surging, Alternative Provision costs being high and Hurley’s promise of an ‘improved system of support’ for those without a school place is not going to come cheaply.
In the shadow of the Send crisis, we also have three Bristol primary school closures. Whilst this is something that has deeply affected the schools’ communities, it’s also a failure to creatively use empty school spaces with funded Send provision and promote better mainstream inclusion. It was literally better to shut schools rather than come up with an imaginative and creative way to use them for Send pupils.
Using school spaces in this way may sound like a parents’ pipedream to the Local Authority, but everything from the council lacks imagination and creativity, instead raising suspicion and does nothing to heal the ‘fractured relationship’.
School funding formulas, funding streams, budgets and blocks are massively complex to navigate, but this is no excuse for not fulfilling a legal duty to ensure that all pupils have a school place.
Some 250 pupils with no school place is the same as an entire mainstream Year 7 intake at one of the biggest secondaries in Bristol not returning to school in September. It’s not even unimaginable. It’s happening right now.