Bristol City Council’s admission that it failed vulnerable children by slashing its special educational needs budget has been welcomed by parents, who campaigned for their rights.
Anna Keen, Labour’s cabinet member for education, accepted responsibility for mistakes made and said they will be learnt from as she vowed not to shy away from putting things right.
This follows a High Court Ruling which found that the council acted unlawfully in its lack of consultation over £5m cuts to the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) budget.
Speaking at the full council meeting on Tuesday, September 11, parents who fought for their children’s rights spoke of the “heart-breaking and demoralising” position their families were put in.
A motion outlining how Bristol is “failing in its legal duty towards SEND children”, recognising that outcomes for this group are poor and committing to improvements, gained unanimous backing from the cross-party chamber.
Proposing the motion, Tim Kent, a Lib Dem councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park who has worked with parents affected, said: “We should not be here, but we are. Parents and children should not have been denied their lawful rights, but they have.
“Funding should be provided to meet need but it hasn’t. That is the past, that is the present, let us agree it will not be the future for children with special education needs and disabilities here in our city.
“There is no doubt that increases in demand, diagnosis and rights has led to greater pressure on the budget, but a lack of funding must not be an excuse for not meeting statutory duties.
“I think the cabinet made a catastrophic mistake cutting funding in January, but let us not fool ourselves – we all made that mistake. None of us noticed at the time. Thankfully, a small group of parents were more diligent and their action has given us a second chance.”
Seconding the motion, Keen, confirmed her commitment to “some of the most vulnerable and yet most resilient families in the city”.
She said that in her 17 years of teaching, she had never known school budgets to be so stretched as she admitted mistakes had been made and vowed to prioritise equalities in future.
“We accept the finding of the judicial review and will not seek to appeal this,” Keen continued. “We will seek to reset the high needs block budget and we will not propose any more savings this financial year.”
She outlined plans to put £2.7m back into the SEND budget – £2m of which will come from the schools budget and the rest from the general funds – and promised the 2019/20 budget will be set with equality at its core.
Gerome Thomas, a Green councillor for Clifton, suggested that such mistakes could have been avoided if adequate scrutiny had taken place and welcomed the formation of a task and finish group to look at the council’s SEND provision.
“These are very challenging times for special education needs provision, but as the motion makes clear, the council could have handled the situation better and should learn from this to avoid making similar mistakes in the future,” he said.
Speaking after the meeting, parent Fiona Castle, one of the campaigners who fought for their children’s rights said: “I’m delighted to have the council not just pass the motion, but have them admit their mistakes and say they will not challenge the judicial review, and will increase SEND funding – it’s a step in the right direction.
“To have them admit their mistakes is a really big thing for families with SEND children.”