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The city’s most marginal seat Bristol North West has been hit hardest by cuts to school funding, but how will that play out as parents go to the polls?

“I feel like I’m compromising my local principles for my national ones.” Fiona Castle is talking about who she plans to vote for tomorrow. 

At the centre of her dilemma is her eight-year-old son who has autism, as she weighs up her anger at how the Labour council has handled the provision for children with special educational needs (SEND), against her fear of another Conservative government.

Education policy is where local politics and the general election collide, as Labour promises the extra funding that schools say they need, but anger grows among parents at how Labour-run Bristol City Council has dealt with a crisis in SEND support in schools. 

Big changes to the education system are on the ballot paper on Thursday, from rolling back academisation to scrapping SATs and replacing Ofsted. But funding is central, too – as the Conservatives pledge spending to undo some of the damage done by austerity, while Labour and the Lib Dems are both promising major investment in education. However, a report by thinktank the Education Policy Institute said the eye-catching promises from all parties were not the best way to help disadvantaged children.

Earlier this year, the Cable spoke to teachers about the funding crisis in Bristol’s schools, which is part of the reason some are leaving education. We heard about cutbacks to support staff, headteachers lying awake at night thinking about balancing budgets, and schools having to fundraise for basic supplies. One recently-retired teacher even spoke of picking up cardboard from a depot for use in the classroom.

The changes in the funding formula for schools since 2015 have phased out extra funding for schools in more deprived urban areas, known as the Pupil Premium. The Conservative government has instead redistributed this money to schools in rural areas.

Strapped for cash

According to data compiled by the National Education Union, within the city Bristol North West has suffered the most from cuts – a loss of £11.5 million or £782 per pupil since 2015.

The Labour-held marginal constituency is home to both affluent and deprived areas, such as Southmead – a white working-class area that would traditionally be home to mainly Labour voters, but the 51% Leave vote in 2016 may test party loyalties this time. 

According to the Ministry of Housing’s most recent report on deprivation in the UK, Southmead is among the most educationally and economically deprived areas in Bristol, meaning schools have an even harder job tackling inequality and providing good education.

The NEU’s findings identify Fonthill Primary in Southmead as the primary school in Bristol North West that has lost the most funding per pupil since 2015. It lost £738 per pupil, equivalent to the salary of two teachers.

Projected changes in per-pupil funding based on manifesto pledges

At pick-up time on a drizzly, chilly afternoon, we spoke to parents at Fonthill about the impact of the funding cuts to the school and how this issue might be influencing their vote on 12 December. 

We catch Jennifer* and her daughter at the school gates. She says: “[My daughter] was on Reading Recovery [a literacy initiative for six-year-olds] last year. All the funding for that has been taken away. She can’t get the help she needs. There are many other children in the school that aren’t getting the help that they need either. And it’s down to funding cuts.” 

Raymond Goodman, whose two children go to Fonthill, sheds light on the extreme lengths the school has to resort to to compensate for the funding deficit. He explains getting parents to help fundraise is embarrassing for any school, but they are doing everything they can. Raymond emphasises that “It’s not the school’s fault!”

Both parents have contrasting views on who they are voting for and whether education will influence their decision. Jenniffer feels “let down” and disappointed by Labour’s Darren Jones for not helping her enough, but won’t elaborate on who will get her vote.

For Raymond, however, education policies are playing a huge role in deciding who he is going to vote for, as these affect his family directly. Raymond’s son has special educational needs (SEND) and requires extra support. Due to the cuts, his son is no longer able to have the one-to-one sessions that he so desperately needs. Because of this, Raymond will vote for the local MP he feels he can trust to deliver on their policies, who at present is Darren Jones, but that he also liked former Tory MP Charlotte Leslie for the same reason.

These contrasting views on the election reflect the uncertainty about who is going to win the Tory-Labour marginal seat.

Jones tells the Cable: “I visit schools all the time as local MP. Without any surprise, all schools regardless of size, status or location have been struggling with their budgets since I was elected in 2017.”

He says schools with more disadvantaged children are no longer being protected from cuts with Pupil Premium, while schools in more affluent areas have been able to raise more money from parents – for things like classroom supplies, playground equipment, and PE kit. In Bristol North West, this is much harder in areas where parents are struggling to make ends meet anyway, he says.

“There’s a really basic point here – funding our schools properly. Quite frankly, we should be ashamed, we’re the UK, we should be able to fund our schools properly, which is what a Labour government would do.”

Special Educational Needs “in crisis”

Within the issue of funding is SEND provision, which has been highly controversial in Bristol since parents took the council to court for how they were implementing central government cuts to SEND budgets. 

We speak to Fiona about her campaign to get her son the extra support he needs at an election hustings on education. While a Conservative candidate did not attend to defend the government’s record, Labour’s Kerry McCarthy became the main target of anger at Bristol City Council’s record on SEND provision. She was interrupted repeatedly by angry parents, including one who said: “We don’t want your sympathy.”

Both McCarthy and Jones acknowledged there was a serious problem with SEND in Bristol, but said the council was “getting to grips with it”. This is strongly disputed by parents, who have described it as “in crisis”, especially after recent figures recently revealed the council has been missing the legal deadline for providing children with Education, health and care plans (EHCPs) in 98% of cases. Local authorities have a statutory obligation within 20 weeks to complete EHCP plans, which set out the needs and support for a young person with special needs.

“I live in fear of dumping him in a mainstream secondary school and watching his life mess up. That’s why I’m here fighting and shouting”

Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission have recently inspected Bristol’s SEND provision, with the report to be released after the general election. Bristol City Council recently tried to take £1 million from the city’s nurseries to put towards SEND, but this was blocked by Bristol school leaders. 

Twenty three new members of staff are set to join the council’s SEND team in January, but Fiona thinks these changes should have been made much earlier. “We put our faith in them that things would change but actually we’ve watched them change and get worse.” 

Her son, who goes to Filton Avenue Primary School in Lockleaze, has been waiting for his EHCP plan for 26 weeks, but they started the process of getting support way back in October 2018. “We’re still no closer to getting our EHCP. It’s horrendous. It takes up so much of my energy that I feel like don’t have energy for anything else anymore.”

“It means he’s falling behind academically, it means we’re getting closer to what happens at secondary school. He has recently been diagnosed with dyscalculia, he’s three years behind in maths, and the school are doing their best but the gap is just getting wider. 

“I live in fear of dumping him in a mainstream secondary school and watching his life mess up. That’s why I’m here fighting and shouting.” She adds others’ cases are even worse, with children being suicidal, being off-rolled, and parents up to a year for EHCPs.”

She says she will reluctantly vote for Darren Jones – a tactical move to stop Conservative candidate Mark Weston taking the seat – but would vote Lib Dem purely on policies.

Darren Jones says the failures are down to cuts from central government, meaning only the children with the most significant needs are getting support, but he admits; “There was poor decision making about how to deal with cuts and SEND at the council.”

“They’ve appointed some excellent new leaders and are starting to turn it around. When the problems were happening, every Friday in my surgery, I’d have another parent coming to me exasperated that they hadn’t got their EHCP. I’m not seeing that so much anymore because the council has got a grip of it.”

But he admits the process is still too slow: “I do understand parents frustrations because the longer it takes to get this sorted, the longer kids are left without the support they need, we know that can have a big impact on their educational outcomes.”

Policy pledges

While funding struggling schools seems less controversial, other policies this election divide opinion. Most schools in Bristol are now academies, which means they are outside of local authority control. This is unpopular with some, especially schools that are taken over by Multi Academy Trusts, which are run like large private companies. 

Labour has pledged to bring all schools under local authority control, but Jones disagrees with this. “Some academy chains have gotten out of hand. When big chains are paying their corporate leaders hundreds of thousands of pounds and I’ve got kids who haven’t got bloody pencils, that’s a problem. There needs to be regulation, pay caps for senior leaders, especially when they’re academic staff.” But he says academisation has helped raise standards for some schools in Bristol North West.

Labour has also promised to scrap SATs and replace Ofsted, which will be popular with teachers, especially those who are critical of the current system which is burning them out. The Lib Dem manifesto also includes scrapping Key Stage 2 SATs, replacing Ofsted, funding SEND, and tackling teacher turnover by recruiting 20,000 more teachers and raising the starting salary to £30,000.

Both parties are also targeting Early Years as an effective way of reducing inequality. Bristol City Council has managed to keep all children’s centres in the city open, which is an achievement considering the vast numbers that have shut elsewhere in the country. Labour has pledged to open even more to help tackle inequality at a young age, while the Lib Dems have announced extending free childcare to 35 hours, extra investment in children’s centres and tripling in Early Years Pupil Premium to give extra help to disadvantaged children.

But none of these policies will work without the extra funding that’s so desperately needed.

Read the rest of our in-depth coverage on the election.

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