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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already been introduced in the light of the budget, including a reduction to the Hospital Education Service, are being repealed.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.

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“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.

Parent power

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.

Missing from Education – Ben’s story

“My son is bright, funny and intelligent, but people would hear about his situation and think that this is a child who will one day end up in prison,” says Sarah. “This is what happens when you leave a child flailing around in the system while their mum’s trying to get the help they need that isn’t there any more.”

Sarah’s nine-year-old son Ben struggled for years in a mainstream primary school until lack of support for his behavioural issues and autism forced him to leave. Without the support he needed at his primary school, his difficulties had escalated until he was frequently trashing classrooms, threatening staff, and having ‘meltdowns’. His persistent refusal to go to school, along with day or two-day exclusions from school almost weekly, meant by the end of his time there he was only actually getting about seven hours of the week in the classroom.

Ben was then at home – without schooling at all – for three months. This September, he finally began at a special school. Both Sarah and Ben’s names have been changed to protect Ben’s privacy.

Ben, who has recently been diagnosed with autism with demand avoidant traits, enjoys gaming, music and swimming. He lives with his mum Sarah and his younger sister – and his difficulties have had a severe knock-on effect on the whole family.

A single mother, Sarah eventually left her full-time job, where she was earning good money, and became a full time carer. She was being called in to the school frequently to calm Ben down when he was having a crisis, and working became untenable. The family’s income is benefits. “That impacted massively on us, on me and my confidence, not having disposable income anymore, savings ran out about a year ago,” says Sarah.

The stressful family situation has had a serious impact on Ben’s younger sister. Recently, Sarah got social services involved because she’d been struggling so much with handling Ben’s behaviour alone, she had become worried about the whole families safety when dealing with Ben’s violent outbursts. Both Ben and his sister are now considered ‘children in need’ – which has had a “massive, massive impact on us as a family”.

Although his previous primary school was supportive, and the teachers did their best to help, it always seemed to come down to two problems. One was the delays and mis-communications between agencies involved in accessing and administering support for Ben. Emails, Sarah says, were left hanging for months, or delayed further because of small errors in paperwork. The other was that the school simply couldn’t afford the support Ben needed.

The most shocking thing about this story is that it all could have been avoided, had Ben received adequate support from the off, says Sarah. “He’s ended up at this place where he’s considered one of the most high needs autistic children in Bristol,” she says. “It shouldn’t have got to this point, it really shouldn’t have. I hope that he’s young enough to turn it around. My aim is that he will go to special unit in a secondary school.”

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  • Anon says:

    I work in a primary school in Bristol and can attest to the difficulty staff face in supporting the needs of the many SEND pupils in our school. Everybody works as hard as they can and yet are still unable to meet many of the children’s needs in an anywhere near a timely fashion.

    This just simply wasn’t the case 3 years ago. In that time we have seen a massive cut in SEND provision, not to mention the complete cut of extra funding for children from disadvantaged areas. The impact of this has ultimately been shifted to human resources and there simply are not enough staff to provide the necessary care for those most vulnerable.

    From a personal level I have had cause to seriously reconsider my future working in education following a dramatic impact on my own mental health which has resulted in me being on antidepressants for the past 18 months. I am not alone in this and many have suffered far worse, whether it be being ousted from the fixed term position they held, unable to find another job in the reduced labour market, or suffering actual physical and mental burnout.

    In any case, to the point of why I chose to comment. I felt helpless. I really felt like there was nothing I could do. Now I know there is real hope.

  • Shaun Thomas says:

    I can remember battles being fought with the LEA in pre-austerity Bristol. Cuts to funding at Kingsweston Special needs school, but the policy ‘every child matters’ won out, in the end. Local authorities are being asked to perform miracles with budgets that are falling in real terms. I’m glad BCC were made to fund these life changing services. We need a change of government, and direction, not just a cosmetic change.

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