Despite years of having the lowest rates in school attendance, and concern from Ofsted, Bristol City Council has had nobody leading a project on improving them for over a year.
From Chopsy Baby:
In each type of school — primary, secondary and special schools — Bristol is well above the national average, with persistent absence increasing at each stage of education. By the time children are placed in special schools, their persistent absence rate is over 40 per cent, well above the England average of 29.6.
The board tackling school absence is not open to public scrutiny so it’s unclear what is being done to tackle this.
However, ‘special educational needs’ is not a listed as a particular priority.
Bristol Learning City (BLC) is tasked with the job of improving school attendance. It is one of the six thematic boards contributing to the Bristol One City Plan and is ‘governed by a Partnership Board of influential city leaders’. In the past, it was a public meeting which would take statements and petitions from members of the public. Now, it meets behind closed doors, with statements no longer accepted and members of the public not allowed in.
The One City boards and the current Labour administration have been criticised for their lack of democracy just recently on November 12 at a Full Council meeting.
When we asked about attending a meeting, democratic services officer Claudette Campbell told us: ‘The Partnership Board is not a public meeting as it is a partnership meeting with city education partners. We will post on line the minutes of the meeting at the conclusion of the meeting.’
The understatement of the year was from the Bristol Learning City partnership board from November 2019’s meeting saying “SEND Inspection report outcome to return to the Board for review and **consider adopting SEND as a priority**”
Alison Hurley, Service Director Education & Skills attended the meeting but Jacqui Jensen, Executive Director ACE, and Councillor Anna Keen, Cabinet Member for Education and Skills.
In July 2019, BLC chair Councillor Anna Keen reporting on the issue of school attendance ‘confirmed’ that Bristol is ‘significantly below the national average’ and that funding had been given to support a project worker. The report was not made available with the agenda or minutes.
Ofsted continued to question the reason(s) behind the figure and blame was first placed on ‘diverse cultures across the city’. The solution would be to educate parents.
In September, blame was ‘around families with extended family members in Europe and World-wide;’
In the meantime, the part time Attendance Manager position – now filled – was only funded part time for just six months, despite the attendance project being ‘without a lead, for almost a year’. It was agreed that funding should be made available to increase the staff hours.
The attendance issue was considered of such importance that it should also be ‘absorbed’ into the priorities of both the Excellence in Schools forum and shared with housing bodies including Bristol Homes Board. Findings showed that there are ‘proven factors that link poor accommodation to non-attendance.
By the November 2019 meeting, attendance blame was moving away from ‘families with extended family members in Europe and World-wide’ and on to grieving children.
In all this time, there has been no mention of SEND needs and lack of school places in board meetings. Since the meetings are not open to the public, there has also been no one to raise the issue.
At the November meeting, Hurley, advised that the embargoed Ofsted and Care Quality Commission Send inspection held up by the general election would be shared at the end of the pre-election period. She asked the board to ‘consider adopting the outcome as part of its leading priorities’.
It’s noted that BLC was ‘not opposed to receiving regular reports on development and support for Bristol’s SEND groups’. Minutes note that The Board was ‘strongly urged’ to consider whether all areas of its work should ‘specifically mention SEND in place of it being implied’. The outcome of this part of the meeting was to ‘work towards adopting SEND as a priority’.
It is unclear which body, forum, board or task group will look into the issue of Send and attendance.
Despite school attendance being a priority for BLC, for some time, Send – according to published minutes – has never been noted as a particular cause for concern. This is despite children being unable to attend school because there are not enough special school places in Bristol. Or, children are too unwell to attend their mainstream school due to their Send not being met. It’s clear from published Bristol school absence figures that Send is a factor for children being unable to access education.
There is a real lack of public scrutiny taking place surrounding school attendance statistics, because of the closed-door nature of Bristol Learning City. Considering the board contributes to the direction of education in the city through the One City Plan, the lack of transparency is problematic.
The one place where the public can ask questions and scrutinise figures and officials is at scrutiny meetings. But you can’t ask questions of officers, including executive directors on £148,000 a year, if they don’t show up.
At the November 28 peoples scrutiny meeting, for example, it was discovered that Bristol City Council had been producing far fewer SEND care plans than parents were led to believe.
As reported by Amanda Cameron in Bristol24/7:
Opposition councillors discovered the truth after questioning the accuracy of official figures.
Councillor Tim Kent said: “It is very clear that senior officers and councillors either did not understand key performance figures themselves or failed to inform the committee, the media and the public that their presentation was incorrect.
“Over the past couple of years statistics and performance figures from this department have consistently been found to be wrong.”
The performance reports are the responsibility of Jacqui Jensen, executive director of adults, children and education.
Neither Jensen nor the new director of education and skills, Alison Hurley, attended the meeting of the people scrutiny commission.
In an attempt to further eliminate scrutiny, Jacqui Jensen changed her Twitter handle to Gone Fishing and set it to private. This was a change to regular behaviour and she had previously interacted with people praising her efforts.
As reported by Amanda Cameron in the Bristol Post:
“A cross-party scrutiny commission agreed to submit a formal complaint at their latest meeting on November 28 after education officials and an invited cabinet member failed to attend.”
The news comes two months after the ruling Labour group was accused of “marginalising” scrutiny by backbench members, who are tasked with holding the administration to account.
On the agenda was a damning internal report detailing the performance of the council’s services for children with special education needs or a disability (SEND).
The report states: “The scrutiny commission are invited to ask questions of the executive director”.
But no-one from the council’s education department or the ruling Labour administration was there to answer the commission’s questions about the council’s SEND failures.
The council was asked for a response on the matter, but a spokesman said the mayor would be “blogging about these issues” so “we won’t be providing an alternative statement”.
The mayor’s blog proceeded to let out all the reasons why his cabinet is diverse, how cllrs bring babies to meetings, and that because they have 13 children between them, they understand what it’s like to have parental responsibilities.
Mr Rees did not address the failure of any education officials to show up at the meeting in his blog about “women in leadership”, published on December 5.
Instead, he defended Cllr Godwin’s absence, citing her son’s illness, and accused opposition councillors of failing to make allowances for cabinet members with young children and families.
As noted on Twitter, seeing as the mayor took the opportunity to reveal findings of a blocked report in order to praise an administration he later had to apologise for, the blog and official council statement came across as self-congratulatory and tone deaf. There are SEND parents who have to give up employment or pay out thousands in childcare because their children don’t have school places. These parents were left unacknowledged.
The next step may indeed be another judicial review. The council lost one in 2018 when they tried to hide £5m in cuts to SEND.
As reported in Bristol24/7:
At the time Cllr Keen did not pass on concerns from the Schools Forum – an independent body whose role is to consider local authority proposals – about the cuts.
A High Court judge has ruled that Bristol City Council did not properly consult over the cuts to the high needs block.
And cabinet member Anna Keen has refused to deny accusations of impropriety despite the multi-million pound slashing of funds not appearing in budget papers that went to the council’s own scrutiny committee.
The Labour administration took the opportunity to call Cllr Clive Stevens who raised the issue a “cheap opportunist”.