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The Bristol Cable

Funding reinstated for SEND charity at heart of council social media spying row

A charity representing parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities, which lost government funding after Bristol City Council withdrew its backing, has had the money restored in a major U-turn.

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A charity representing parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), which saw its funding pulled after Bristol City Council controversially withdrew its backing, has had the money restored in a major U-turn.

Bristol Parent Carers (BPC) lost its annual £17,500 grant from the Department for Education (DfE) and status as the local authority’s official forum partner at the height of last summer’s SEND parents’ ‘spying’ scandal.

But the two organisations have now made amends, with each issuing a press release to signify a new era of cooperation. 

The Cable understands the repairing of relationships has been enabled in part by turnover of senior staff within its People directorate, some of which has also been reported by the Bristolian.

At the end of 2022 the council appointed a new executive director, Abi Gbago, with responsibility for children’s services and education, who one source said had taken a “no nonsense” approach to rebuilding bridges with BPC.

The future of an independent inquiry into social media monitoring by the council – which has faced delays – is unclear following the latest developments.

Long route back to square one

Last summer it emerged that the council had taken steps to block the funding for BPC just days after it was revealed that officers were monitoring the social media posts and photos of some parents – subsequently revealed to be BPC representatives – who had criticised SEND provision in Bristol.

Parent carer forums are a network of voluntary organisations across England comprising of families with disabled children and young people who aim to ensure local services meet youngsters’ needs.

Bristol City Council said the surveillance took place following a request from BPC – a claim the charity denied – and insisted that its withdrawal of support for the forum’s government funding was unrelated.

At the time Tim Kent, a SEND parent and Lib Dem councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park, slammed it as “truly disgusting behaviour” that would leave the parents of disabled children to “suffer the council’s vindictive wrath”.

A letter sent by Asher Craig, the deputy mayor and cabinet member for children’s services, education and equalities to the DfE asked the government to keep hold of the grant that year so the council could explore new models of parent participation.

That began a long and ultimately fruitless route back to square one, which took a significant turn when a re-inspection by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission in October concluded the local authority had made sufficient progress to address four of five “significant weaknesses” in its SEND provision that the watchdogs found in 2019.

But last autumn’s report also said the fifth area of concern – the council’s “fractured relationship” with parents – had not been healed, not least because of last year’s SEND ‘spying’ scandal following years of mistrust. The DfE ordered the council to produce an action plan to fix it.

The end result is that BPC has now secured the £17,500 DfE funding grant again for the next year and both the charity and the council have issued press releases celebrating the fact.

Funding ‘reinstated for local families’ benefit’

BPC said on its website news page that it was delighted to be “once again formally recognised as the Bristol DfE-funded parent carer forum after a year of uncertainty”, comments which appear in neither press release. That was followed by a quote from the organisation’s chair Hayley Hemming – also not part of the mutually agreed PR.

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“With the support over the last year from our fantastic volunteers and neighbouring parent carer forum colleagues alongside Contact [the national delivery group supporting SEND families] and our local health services, we have remained committed to ensuring that the DfE funding is reinstated in Bristol for the benefit of local families,” said Hemming, who was one of the parents whose social media posts were monitored by the council.

Asher Craig said in the press release: “Representing all communities is incredibly important to our administration.

“I know that Bristol Parent Carers, who are already part of our community of groups, are, like us, committed to supporting and advocating for all SEND families.,” she said. “We are on track to meet our mayoral pledge to provide 450 specialist provision places by 2024 and are opening more specialist resources sases in schools across the city.

“Ofsted found that we have made sufficient progress in addressing four of the five key areas of weakness highlighted in their 2019 inspection.

“This is an exciting time and opportunity to be working together, with partners, to shape the future, make further progress, and create equitable opportunities for a valued part of our Bristol community.”

This week’s news marks the second recent notable U-turn around SEND provision in the Bristol area.

At the end of April the healthcare provider Sirona reversed a decision made in March – slammed as “monstrous” by parents – to drastically tighten criteria around children’s elgibility for autism assessments. In response parents launched a campaign group called Assess for Autism along with a crowdfunding appeal to enable them to challenge the decision in court.

Additional reporting by Alex Turner

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