Parents and campaigners are calling for high profile resignations in the wake of a damning report into Bristol’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision.
Inspectors raised serious concerns about services, in particular the “disturbingly poor” quality of Educational Health Care Plans (EHCP), lack of accountability among leaders and high rates of exclusions.
The council has apologised unreservedly to families who feel let down by the failings in the system, but campaigners and parents say they don’t want to hear any more “excuses or apologies” as they demand action and call for mayor Marvin Rees and Dr Jacqui Jensen, executive director of adults, children and education, to resign.
Responding to the joint Ofsted and Care Quality Commission report, published on Friday, December 20, Bristol Independent Send Community said in a statement: “Every day, we hear from more families whose lives are being damaged by a system in Bristol that does not follow the law, is inefficient and lacks accountability and transparency.
“The failings come at every level in the council including Bristol schools. The effects on families having to deal with this is devastating both emotionally and financially. It’s not just about a lack of funding but about the culture at the heart of strategic leadership.”
The group has been campaigning for equal access to education for children with SEND for two years and says the report findings come as no surprise.
The report states there have been notable improvements since early 2018, saying “the energy, enthusiasm and determination of new leaders to improve provision is palpable”, but it warns implementation of reforms has been slow and fragmented, and urgent action needed.
Inspectors found parents and carers are having to fight to get an assessment and often resort to paying for therapy assessments and legal help to get their case heard, and for those who can’t access or challenge the system, children’s needs are not being met.
Campaigners say it is “shocking” that the First Tier Send Tribunal is now essentially built into the EHCP process, adding: “what should be a means of redress in exceptional cases is now becoming the norm”.
Their statement continues: “The system pits parents against each other and schools against parents in a zero sum game where everyone loses. No parent should be made to feel guilty for ensuring their child is able to progress with their learning.”
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Parents have described the toll battles over SEND provision have had on their families, leading to relationship breakdowns, mental health problems and increased strain on services such as CAMHs.
They conclude: “At every stage of the SEND journey in Bristol, the local authority is dragged kicking and screaming to comply with its legal obligations. It’s forced on pain of legal action to agree to assess, assess with proper professional input, to draft fully specified and quantified plans and to implement provision.
“We want a radical culture change that can only be achieved with a fresh administration. We’ve listened to the excuses and apologies; we’ve listened to the claims of improvement. All trust and faith in the existing administration has been lost. No more excuses and no more apologies. We want action now.”
Calling for the resignation of the mayor and Jenson, they say “we have zero confidence trust or faith in her ability to grasp and tackle the crisis we face”.
Bristol SEND Alliance, which comprises Autism Independence, Bristol Independent Send Community, Bristol Send Crisis and SEND Action, said in a statement: “No parent should be made to feel ashamed for fighting for their children’s rights, no child should be made to feel like they are inadequate, too many families have been ostracized by these failings and an apology comes too little too late.
“We, as parents and campaigners, have been willing to work alongside the council and its administration throughout this process, however, we do not feel like that offer has been taken seriously enough.
“At this point, we need to continue to be critical, especially while the administration and the council department responsible continue to work against us until changes are made, we cannot begin to reassure our children that their voices will be heard.”
Jen Smith, a parent who spoke at full council on Tuesday about the impact of SEND failings, told Bristol24/7: “Accountability is a key thing now. There’s no excuse for years of neglect or lack of strategic direction from the top of Bristol City Council downwards.
“We need immediate and urgent investment into special school places, resource bases and EHCP provision, to make sure the most vulnerable children in Bristol are able to learn.”
Commenting on the report, Helen Godwin, cabinet lead for children, said the challenges that have built up have been exasperated by a reduction in central government funding, but conceded the council has not acted fast enough to turn provision around.
She said: “Families and carers of children and young people with SEND in Bristol feel badly let down by the service they have received. We apologise unreservedly for this and want to offer assurance that we will not rest until their children get the quality service they deserve.”
Alison Hurley, the council’s director for education and skills said her team remains committed to transforming SEND services in Bristol.
To address the backlog of EHCPs, the council has recruited 24 new staff to work specifically on this provision. Hurley added that it will take time for improvements to be felt by SEND families.
The council has been approached for comment on the calls for resignations.
Main photo thanks to Bristol Independent Send Community