The current situation for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities children and their families in Bristol is nothing short of dire. The Children & Families Act of 2014 clearly lays out the lawful obligations for the city council in dealing with children in need of an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP).
Assessments should be made on any child meeting the criteria and this assessment should take no more than 20 weeks. Any child given an EHCP must have it reviewed annually. All plans should be specific and individual, breaking down additional support into hours and therapist qualification level, so that each EHCP can be properly funded by the Council.
However, EHCP assessments in Bristol are taking far in excess of 20 weeks. In 2019, less than 24 per cent of assessments were completed within 20 weeks and I personally know of SEND families waiting in excess of 40 or 50 weeks to have their plans issued.
Shockingly, there are also 2,900 annual reviews overdue in Bristol, some of which date back to 2017. As well as this, pupil absence from school for SEN children and young adults is significantly above the national average.
It seems that in Bristol, even if an EHC plan is issued for a child, the quality of the plan is poor and it may not be reviewed in a timely manner. This is resulting in children and young people languishing in inappropriate educational settings.
On July 2, a Resourcing Plan for SEND is being presented to Bristol City Council Cabinet for approval. The plan asks for £1.575m over the next two financial years, to improve provision and help the Council achieve compliance in its legal obligations to children and young people with SEND.
At a recent Bristol Parent Carer event, Dr Jacqui Jenson, the council’s executive director of adults, children & education, and Alan Stubberfield, interim director of education, learning & skill improvement, came to discuss these issues and to explain the plan going before Cabinet.
When Dr Jenson was questioned about the quality of EHCP plans in Bristol, she said “we are disappointed for you about the quality of the plans. I’m really sorry and it’s not going to get better quickly”.
Mr Stubberfield stated that he hoped the new Resourcing Plan would clear the backlog by the end of 2019. He also addressed the myriad of problems with SEND provision in Bristol by saying there was “nothing here we can’t handle. We will build confidence by delivering.”
Superficially, the Resourcing Plan does seem to deliver. The council has employed more SEND caseworkers and two interim plan writers to tackle the EHCP backlog. The plan also includes the employment of five more Educational Psychologists, an absolutely integral professional in the EHCP process.
What the Resourcing Plan doesn’t have, however, is longevity. The funding is requested for this year and next and, with the exception of the educational psychologists, all the staff contracts are fixed term of no more than a year.
The council has also employed a consultant tribunal manager for a year, at a cost of £108,000. The job of this consultant seems to be to discourage appeals to the SEND Tribunal service, but this is only a good thing if appeals are no longer required, due to better provision, and not because parents and schools are being discouraged from appealing.
There are a lot of references in the Resource Plan to improving standards and reducing the backlog, but little discussion of what will happen once this is done and the backlog is tackled.
Surely, with more EHCPs written and being reviewed each year, but no additional long term staff, the bottleneck that we have seen over the last few years is only going to reoccur.
The report itself touches on this, stating that “longer term solutions may be necessary” but goes on to say that it is “too early to identify what those solutions would be, how much they would cost and what benefits they might bring”.
As the parent carer of a SEND child, this strikes me as the council having a fundamental lack of understanding about the challenges and rewards of raising and educating a child with additional needs or disabilities.
This is about balancing spreadsheets and passing government inspections and not primarily about improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
The council doesn’t seem to know what good educational provision for SEND children looks like, or how to achieve it long term.
For me, it isn’t just about legally compliant plans and meeting statutory deadlines. It’s about a mind-set where children and young people are valued for the people they are and encouraged to be the best versions of themselves.
It is about giving educators the training, resources and time to understand the individual strengths and struggles of each SEND child. It’s about compassion, empathy, understanding and encouragement of diversity. And it most certainly is not about short term plans to achieve short term goals.
A change in the educational experience of SEND children and young people requires a seismic attitude change on not just a local, but a national level.
This Resourcing Plan doesn’t begin to discuss how this can be achieved and I worry that all it will achieve is more broken promises and a papering over the cracks in a chronically broken system.
Fiona Castle is a part time working mum, looking after two boys, one of whom has additional needs. She lives with her husband in Horfield.
Main photo: Parents in Bristol protested against cuts to SEND provision and won a high court battle against the city council