Director of Education looks for ‘quick wins’ for ‘urgent need’

A report to Cabinet on 01 September 2020, caused controversy in the city, after it revealed that 190 ‘young people’ in Bristol who had an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) did not have an education setting because the council did not have enough specialist spaces.

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.

The subsequent media coverage drew the ire of Cabinet member for education and skills Councillor Anna Keen. She took to Twitter to dispute the figures despite the numbers being drawn directly from Cabinet papers.

Members of Bristol’s Send community spoke out at the time, saying that the statistics were representative of the city’s Send crisis.

Keen’s argument was that there were relatively few pupils without a placement with the vast majority of them still being on the roll of an education setting.

But this disregarded the fact that although pupils may have a school or type of placement named in the Section I of an EHCP, professional contributions had clearly shown that the setting was unable to meet needs.

The opinion also failed to take into consideration that those pupils may not even be able to attend that setting due to issues arising from their disability, the fact the setting couldn’t or wouldn’t meet their needs and that many were having to access Alternative Provision or the Bristol Hospital Education Service. Or worst of all, pupils were at home receiving no education at all.

The Fixed Term Exclusion statistics of pupils with Send in Bristol is also high, as is poor school attendance, factors inextricably linked with a lack of special school places.

Keen herself had backed additional funding for the Bristol Alternative Learning Provision Framework at Cabinet in July 2020, with a lack of special school places being one of many emerging issues in a hotbed of Send fiasco.

An appendix to the report state: ‘Demand has remained high in part due to the relatively high levels of fixed-term exclusions for children with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) in Bristol compared to nationally, an issue highlighted in the November 2019 joint local area SEND inspection by Ofsted and the CQC.

‘Other factors include: increasing demand for specialist SEND/SEMH (social, emotional and mental health) places for children who have, or should have been assessed for, Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), lack of special school places, inconsistent inclusive practice and infrastructure for children with special educational needs within the schools sector, lack of funding in schools for high cost interventions and specialist/pastoral support.

‘Bristol City Council Education & Skills Directorate is challenging a number of these factors, particularly the high levels of exclusions and the lack of special school places, through its Written Statement of Action to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and Ofsted Joint Inspection, an ongoing review into specialist education provision, and the forthcoming Belonging Strategy.’

Director of Education and Skills, Alison Hurley referred to the ‘high profile coverage’ of the lack of special school places during Bristol School’s Forum in September 2020.

In the update to Forum, Hurley said of the specialist provision project: “This project is about creating additional specialist provision across the city in order to meet the current shortfall that Bristol faces and has faced for a number of years. The good news is that we were able to have face to face sessions with our city leaders across the education sector. Literally, I think it was about a week before we ended up in lockdown. What that was really launching with heads was the collective challenge that we have in the city with regard to lack of specialist provision. So that piece of work took place and there’s sort of different phases to this as a project.

“So the first phase really is to address the urgent need. So what we asked for schools, both those that are maintained, those that are special, those that are academies, we asked for schools to really think about how the specialist provision can be provided, not just for additional places at special but also through mainstream as well, perhaps through resource bases or other ways of meeting that need.

“And we had 78 expressions of interest from 30 schools which was a really positive outcome. Obviously the big piece of work then needed to be to look at each of those, to look at it from a feasibility perspective in terms of the actual buildings and capital programmes, to look at it with regard to where the need is in the city, so certainly trying to keep the expansion to the type of need that’s required but also in the area of the city that’s required so that provision is local to families.

“So all of that work had obviously started and then lockdown happened and that really did have a really negative impact throughout the summer term and we basically lost the summer term in terms of being able to undertake those feasibility studies on site at each of the schools and settings. We’ve picked that piece of work up but unfortunately, we have experienced delay.

“There are three phases to this strategy with regards to those increased numbers of specialist provision. And the first phase is obviously being worked on at the moment we’re trying to identify where we can get some quick wins that are easy. Either very small pieces of capital expenditure that the provision is already there it just needs some adjustments and or diversifying slightly. So we’re trying to really prioritise those that we can deliver quickly.

“It then goes through to the more complex investments and builds that would be part of next spring term’s developments. There’s an obvious route through for this but it obviously is further behind than we would want it to be at the moment which is a shame ‘cause we did get off to a good start on that.”

In response to a question about how decisions were made and what the plans were for the city as a whole, Hurley said: “Does the building accommodate that change and how much would it cost the reality of how much would it cost to do that. Is that within a sort of financial tolerance for what the outcome would be i.e how many additional children and young people would it accommodate so is it value for money? So you know, finance is obviously a big part of it and whether or not that build can happen from a planning perspective.

“The other part of it obviously is to look at where the school or setting is and then where the need is so for example there may have been expressions of interest that are meeting a need that we only have in one part of the city and the school is based in another. So again they maybe not considered  appropriate to take forward because we don’t want to be back in this situation where we are transporting children all across our city for provision that we can provide locally.

“And then other elements may be to do with where the school is in terms of staffing, its previous capability with regard to supporting SEND. Whether or not there would need to be a significant amount of input from a pedagogical perspective in terms of branching out into specialist provision.

“And then the final one really is there’s obviously very, and you’ll be aware of this, there’s obviously very clear governance route from an academy perspective as well where we sort of run in parallel to the decisions that we’re making in the local authority, so the decisions on anything relating to an academy has to go through a formal headteacher board, which obviously, I think November is the first one we’re able to present against with the current timeline.

“So all of those factors are considered for each of those individual expressions of interest. That will then be sort of worked up into a final plan of those that are going ahead. That’s absolutely when we need to come back round and say here are still gaps, this hasn’t worked, this is what we need to do in this part of the city with this age group and this type of need, it’s as specific as that.”