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(UK) Bristol: $67M bailout for special ed deficit comes with strings attached

Mar 13, 2024, Bristol Live: Warning Bristol SEND bailout will ‘make life a whole lot harder’ for disabled children 

SW England

The council secretly applied to the government for a £53 million [$67M] bailout to rescue its spiralling schools budget
Campaigners have warned that a bailout plan to rescue Bristol’s spiralling special educational needs budget will “make life a whole lot harder” for disabled children. Under the new plan, Bristol City Council must agree to spend millions less on supporting children with special needs.

The council secretly applied to the government for a £53 million bailout, and a decision is expected imminently from the Department for Education. But parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) warned the bailout wouldn’t solve systemic problems.

Labour mayor Marvin Rees repeated claims he made last week that the DfE prevented the council from discussing its application in public, despite government sources contradicting those claims. He was warned by two mothers of children with SEND that the bailout reforms could make issues worse, during a full council meeting on Tuesday, March 12.

Fiona Castle, from Bristol SEND Justice, said: “The council entered into negotiations in July last year, and other councils who entered into negotiations at the same time published information about their agreements. I strongly suspect that the council has chosen not to do that because of the amount of opposition that other councils are facing for the Safety Valve programme.

“Bristol City Council has spent years failing its SEND children, and has now used in my opinion undemocratic and unnecessary methods to hide the fact that for SEND children and families in Bristol, life is about to get a whole lot harder.”

Fiona Preece added: “The agreement does nothing to address the fundamental problems of a broken mainstream system, which is stripped to the bone. There’s no teaching assistants, there’s no specialist teachers. A lack of maintained specialist places is why there are kids travelling miles to schools outside of Bristol.

“The healthcare system is on its knees with waiting lists for diagnosis and support, years long. The Safety Valve forgives some of the debt, but it doesn’t fund the systemic reform needed to provide the laudable aims of inclusion, early intervention and local schools spaces.”

Demand for SEND support is rising across the country, with many councils struggling to afford to pay for that support. In Bristol, the council’s schools budget faces a whopping £56 million [$71M] deficit as the cost of providing SEND support has risen much faster than the money the council receives for spending on education.

Under the Safety Valve programme, the government would write off most of that deficit, but the council would need to carry out major reforms to bring its spending down. Opposition councillors warned this would inevitably lead to “spending less on the most vulnerable children”, and criticised a lack of special school places and huge backlog of applications for education, health and care plans. . . .

 “The current position of this universal statutory service is intrinsically linked, intertwined with the political choices, interests and values of the Bristol Labour party. Those have now been confirmed to also be those at the national level.

“What these values amount to in practice is choosing to have secret talks with the DfE about signing a Safety Valve contract, while making public claims that apparent confidentiality was at the behest of the DfE. This was exposed within hours, when the DfE issued statements contradicting the very words that came out of the mouth of the mayor last week at cabinet.”

She was shouted down by the lord mayor, Labour Cllr Paul Goggin, for continuing to speak after her allotted three minutes were up. He banged a wooden gavel on his desk, then abruptly stood up and continued shouting at her to stop talking, while she was criticising Labour’s education policies.

Several neighbouring councils near Bristol are already in the Safety Valve programme, with over 60 councils taking part across England. The mayor again claimed the Department for Education told the council to keep negotiations confidential, and warned the alternative would mean “huge pressure on budgets” — particularly as several councils have now effectively declared bankruptcy.

Mr Rees said: “That wasn’t the direction we had from DfE. It was that negotiations had to remain between us and them until they published them. If they’ve changed their position since then, then I’m glad to hear about it. But the direction to us was that it had to remain confidential.

“This Safety Valve is an incredibly important financial intervention, in a situation that we and other local authorities wish we weren’t in, but are in and need this to get us through. The alternative, not having this financial intervention, is huge pressure on local authority budgets. Among the recent spate of 114s, we’ve had two major cities, Birmingham and Nottingham.”

Labour Cllr Asher Craig, cabinet member for education, added: “There are no plans to reduce EHCPs or the issuing of them. Our plans remain to have the right provision, at the right time, for the right child. We have a high deficit in part because Bristol is not immune to government austerity, but we’re far from being alone in this position. . . .


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