Bristol City Council is still missing its own targets on tackling the crisis in support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), prompting fresh criticism from campaigners.
More than two years after Bristol’s services were slammed by Ofsted and the CQC as ‘not fit for purpose’, the council is still failing to assess and approve support for SEND children in schools through education and health care plans (EHCPs) in a timely manner.
Campaigners have also said that the support plans are often not enough to meet the child’s needs, even once they’ve been approved.
In 2021, there were 546 EHCPs processed, which is fewer than in 2020. A third of these were finalised within the 20-week limit, representing an overall improvement in waiting times compared with the last two years. But there were families who had been waiting for over a year for their child’s plans to be finalised, and there are currently around 500 families still waiting.
In response to the damning inspection report back in late 2019, the council set out a Written Statement of Action – a plan to sort out the crisis – which included closer engagement with families and extra funding and staffing to reduce waiting times.
At a council scrutiny meeting last week, the director of education Alison Hurley said: “There have been improvements since 2019, but we’re not where we want to be as a council. This is an area that has been impacted by Covid, staff shortages and increased demand in the system.
“Waiting times overall have reduced and there are families that have had a positive experience but there’s still a lot to do to ensure all families receive a more efficient service.”
A progress report presented to councillors on 7 March said there had been important improvements since 2019, including better data on waiting times for EHCPs which can be scrutinised regularly, monthly meetings of a partnership group with representatives from schools and parent groups, and training in schools and early years setting to help identify children who may need extra support. Now work on a broader SEND Partnership Plan is underway, which will be co-produced with parent and carer groups.
But this hasn’t spared the council from strong criticism on the lack of progress. Tim Kent, Lib Dem councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park, who chairs the People Scrutiny Committee, told the Cable: “It’s mixed. There’s some good news, but also some really bad news. The lack of progress in being able to process and complete EHCPs is shocking, inexcusable and I felt that we didn’t really get reasonable answers as to why that’s the case.
“We now have more outstanding plans than we’ve ever had, so families will be waiting well over a year rather than the 20-week legal limit, which means children won’t get support they need or might even be out of school.
“I’m increasingly seeing children being put on part time timetables, which is a completely unlawful practice.” This is only supposed to be a short-term measure, and Kent said the council had committed to start tracking it. The Cable asked the council to confirm this.
“Why are we failing our children so badly? We’re being told we’re making improvements, but the things we can measure are processing EHCPs, we see a total failure by the local authority. They’re failing disabled children.”
He welcomed the extra funding in the system, but said it would take years to remove the backlog in EHCPs, and that even when approved, the support plans were sometimes not good enough.
The council has put the lack of improvement in down to a number of factors. Firstly, increased demand for support – in the second half of 2021 there was a 160% increase in referrals to the Autism Hub, and the number of requests for education, health and care needs assessments also rose in 2021.
Secondly, the pandemic has made staff shortages worse and made it harder to assess kids while schools were closed. These factors meant there was a 20% reduction nationally in how much SEND teams were able to operate, and locally the council admitted that assessment teams had reduced capacity between February and July 2021. Staff have been hired into new fixed term positions starting in February 2022 to help address the backlog.
Councillor Kent also criticised the shortfall in special school places, which means SEND children are stuck in mainstream schools that aren’t appropriate for them. The council has committed to delivering 450 new places by September 2024, and delivered 82 in September 2021, while 24 are due to open this September and a further 36 in January 2023, leaving more than 300 places still to create.
A spokesperson for Bristol SEND Justice, a campaign group of parents and carers with children with SEND told the Cable: “Since the implementation of the Written Statement of Action, we recognise there has been some changes in the SEND department and improvements have been made. We also recognise that insufficient funding from central government for SEND and education in general, is making the job of the council more challenging.
“However, the fact remains that children and young people with the highest level of need in Bristol, including those requiring EHCPs and provision from social care, continue to be failed by Bristol City Council. Improvements are too slow and more alarmingly, this failure doesn’t seem to be high on the Council’s agenda to correct.
They added that many families don’t feel the support for their SEND children has improved enough, the huge deficit in special school places remained a problem, and that EHCPs lack specified provision that would improve the education of children with SEND.
“The EHCP process in Bristol remains adversarial, unlawfully lengthy and opaque and children and young people in this city continue to be harmed by its poor execution,” they said.
Bristol’s SEND services are due for re-inspection by Ofsted and the CQC, but it is unknown when.