Anna Keen vowed Bristol can and will do better for its most vulnerable children as the city’s special educational needs (SEN) crisis deepens.
The cabinet member for education and skills admitted there are deeply concerning issues surrounding vital provision as she announced the launch of an independent review into the failings that continue to affect families.
Children with SEN are facing long waits for Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP) assessments as the council has failed to keep up with a steep rise in demand. The percentage of assessments completed within the statutory 20-week timeframe dropped from 89 per cent in 2016 to below 24 per cent in 2019 – making Bristol among the worst in the country.
Each child with an EHCP should have an annual review, but the city currently has a backlog of 2,900 reviews, dating back to 2017.
These recent figures follow a High Court Ruling last year, which found that the council acted unlawfully in its lack of consultation over £5m cuts to the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) budget.
A plan to invest £1.575m over two years to address the situation and improve SEN provision was agreed at a cabinet meeting in City Hall on Tuesday, but parents and campaigners have expressed concerns it underestimates the scale of the crisis.
Speaking about the impact on her family, Sarah McClelland said her eight-year-old son faces a move to his sixth educational setting in as many years due to the special needs school places crisis – a situation that, through no fault of his own, has caused severe disruption.
She said hers is not the only family facing these struggles and implored the council to “please listen to the impact your decisions about cost are having on the real lives of our future city”.
Keen said the under-funding by central government and lack of transparency over the severity of issues facing families – which dates back nine years across different administrations – has exacerbated the crisis.
“The paper makes clear that we will not tolerate further delays for our families and young people,” she told the meeting.
“There has been a clear failure in this council and I have ordered an independent review of processes and practices that need to urgently be carried out. Failures with delivering EHCP are just not acceptable – we are failing the most vulnerable children in our city.
“I will place high demands on schools and teachers, and I include myself in this, to question how inclusive we are and to challenge ourselves to be the best we can.”
She said the purpose of the plan is to expand the capacity to address the urgent SEN need and outlined a number of measures, including recruitment of staff, already being implemented.
Keen continued: “I was asked how I sleep at night knowing how poorly Bristol has served these children.
“It does keep me awake at night and it should do. It’s the most difficult and uncomfortable part of my job. We all need to feel uncomfortable about these figures around children in Bristol. It gives us a sense of what these families go through and it galvanizes us to act.
“We can and we will do better for Bristol’s children.”
In a statement responding to the council’s plan, Bristol Independent SEND Community (BISC) said: “We were gratified to have senior members of the SEN team acknowledge and apologise for the appalling state of the SEN backlog and SEN school places crisis in Bristol.
“Having now seen the plans put forward to cabinet today, we continue to have grave concerns however.
“This plan is firefighting at best and, at worst, a gross underestimation of the scale of the issue. SEND children and their families are being consistently let down and the resource plan only seems to highlight that those in Bristol City Council in the best position to understand and solve this shameful situation, do not comprehend the full extent of this crisis”
The cabinet also approved a separate report allocating funds to the education capital budget, which included £3,822,386 of basic need grant funding to Kingsweston School and £7,179,121 for KnowleDGE to develop a sixth form block.