Parent power wins radical overhaul of special needs services
Two Bristol families have taken a stand against cuts – and won. The anonymous parents have taken Bristol City Council to court over its decision to cut special needs spending by £5m, arguing that the council had failed to consider the equalities impacts of the cuts or to consult on the decision.
“The SEN budgets have already been cut to the absolute core,” said Tess Christy, mother of two children with SEND and campaigner, at the court case this summer.
“Schools cannot afford any more cuts, it puts an outrageous burden on existing resources of teachers and schools and the most vulnerable children are basically being excluded”.
As well as having to backpedal on the cut – there are going to be no cuts to its SEND budget this financial year – the council has been forced back to the drawing board to completely rethink its SEND budget.
Bristol’s landmark hearing will have big implications around the country. Families in East Sussex and North Yorkshire have successfully crowdfunded to launch a case against government ministers and parents in Surrey and Hackney are also taking their local authorities to court over cuts.
Cuts in court
The council planned to cut SEND spending by £7m over three years, starting with a £5m in the first year. The cuts would have had a wide-reaching impact, hitting special school funding, top-up payments to mainstream school and FE college students, specialist outreach teams and Bristol’s pupil referral units.
Three cost-cutting measures that had already been introduced in the light of the budget, including a reduction to the Hospital Education Service, are being repealed. The council has announced that it will be diverting £2m from other parts of the school’s budget and £700,000 from other council funds.
These cuts would have had a massive impact on the life chances of many of Bristol’s most vulnerable pupils. And without the action of two families, these cuts would already have kicked in.
The parents argued that the council failed to consider the equalities impacts of the cuts or to consult on the decision. The judge agreed, and the verdict was damning.
‘There is no evidence, from the extensive paperwork evidencing the Defendant’s decision-making process, that members of the Council had any regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, still less “actively promote” children’s welfare, when making the decision to proceed with the proposed savings.
‘Indeed, the decision-making process appears to be driven entirely from the standpoint of ensuring a balanced budget by 2020/21.’
“It sounds like we’ve brought them face to face with the reality of what’s going on”
Christy said she was “delighted” at the wide-ranging outcome of the ruling. “Not only are they not going to make the proposed cuts but they’re obviously having a huge rethink about how they can improve the SEN department,” she said.
“Obviously they’ve had time to reflect and they’ve completely accepted the result of the judgement and they have acknowledged that they made mistakes,” said Christy.
In a letter to parents at the end of September, Mayor Rees promised, “We are increasing the SEND casework team’s capacity by over 100% – an increase of 20 posts and recruitment is now beginning so we hope to see positive changes within the next couple of months.”
Councillor Anna Keen, cabinet member for education and skills, said: “We have accepted that we made mistakes when looking to make savings from our High Needs Block budget, which funds our SEND services, and we have apologised for this.
“The review taught us that our prioritisation of equalities, specifically the way we consult and assess the impact of our decisions, must be better – and it will be. We now want to move forward and look at how we can improve the lives of children and young people with SEND over the longer term.”
“It sounds like we’ve brought them face to face with the reality of what’s going on,” said Christy.
Long term problems
Parents have told the Cable about the problems they have encountered with almost every aspect of the services, particularly refusals and delays in securing formal needs assessments, and schools being unable to fulfil children’s learning needs such as providing necessary one-to-one support.
“The people that I feel sorry for the most are the people who don’t know how to fight it,” said one mum. She has a 9-year-old with additional learning needs which she says his school are refusing to recognise or meet, and which she will soon be fighting for at a tribunal.
“He’s not destructive in the classroom so the school thought other students deserved it more,” she told the Cable.
“Before the end of last term it got to the point where he would get so anxious they’d call me and say, ‘Can you come and pick him up? He’s not very well’. That alone tells you he’s not getting the correct support.”
Up and down the country, SEND services are at breaking point. According to a recent survey from the National Association of Headteachers, only 2% of respondents said that the top up funding they received was sufficient to meet individual education health and care plans (EHCPs) or statements for pupils with SEND.
Bristol in particular has been grappling with problems with ‘high needs’ education funding for several years, compounded by problems such as having historically overspent (despite the poor outcomes) and having the highest rate of permanent exclusions from both primary and secondary schools in the country. Of the 36 Bristol pupils who were excluded from school last year, 21 had special educational needs. The council has set up an ‘Inclusion Panel’ to address the issue.
Bristol parents are networking with families across the country in fighting for SEND services, under the umbrella campaign SEND National Crisis. Campaigners are gearing up for a national day of action next spring, 30 May 2019.