More specialist school places planned for Bristol

Today’s blog is from Deputy Mayor Asher Craig, Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Education, and Equalities.

Choosing and applying for a school place for your child or children is one of the most important decisions that families will make. It’s a process which can sometimes be fraught with anxiety about making the right choice. As a parent myself I know this feeling all too well. And if you are applying for a school place for your child or children who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), knowing that the school will be able to meet their individual needs and provide the specialist provision required will be paramount. 

As a local authority we recognised that our city needed more specialist provision places back in 2021, and we made the decision to set this work in motion, making a Mayoral pledge to create 450 new, specialist provision places within three years. Specialist provision places are for children who have an education, health and care (EHC) plan. Creating these new places across our city takes time and proper planning, and we know this won’t feel quick enough for all families, but real progress is being made. 

Just this month, Cabinet approved a competitive tender and subsequent award of a block contract for 30 new placements in an independent special school in the Bristol area (BS1 – BS16), over the next five years. These placements will be for children who present with a range of complex additional learning needs. 

Phase One of the specialist provision Mayoral pledge will establish 142 new places in total. Over 106 of these have already been delivered and the remaining 36 are coming between January and April 2023. Over 80 specialist places are also being delivered as part of other capital projects including Knowle DGE, Elmfield School for Deaf Children, and City of Bristol College (Project Rainbow)

In addition, the number of High Needs places at the city’s existing special schools have been increased by 37. These additional places have been created at Soundwell Academy, Venturers Academy, Elmfield School for Deaf Children, Briarwood, and Kingsweston School

In September, Cabinet approved funding for the progression of a variety of projects as part of Phase Two of the specialist provision project, which will deliver hundreds more new places to complete the 450 pledge and probably more. 

Through forecasting, we have also identified the need for a new special school in our local area and have applied to the Department for Education for funding, as part of their new special free school wave. Local data suggests the need for a 164-place school providing specialist provision for children with a range of needs. We anticipate the school will be for pupils aged from 4-19 years and will support the need of our community by offering a flexible provision, catering for Trauma; Neurodiversity; Speech, Language, and Communication Needs (SLCN); Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC); SEMH (Social, Emotional, and Mental Health); Severe Learning Difficulty (SLD); and Cognition & Learning Needs (C&L).      

Our proposed site for the school will be located to the north of Bristol, on the Elmfield Site, in the neighbourhoods of Southmead, Westbury-on-Trym, and Henbury. Bristol City Council are deeply committed to ensuring the new proposed school truly benefits the local community, so we ran a consultation in autumn this year which showed the vast majority were in favour of the location for the new school, with most of the responses coming from parents and carers of SEND families. We will find out if our bid for the funding has been successful in January 2023.

This work is part of our SEND Sufficiency and Capital Proposals. Cabinet approved an investment of over £28 million in Bristol’s special schools, which included major improvements to current special schools as well as significantly increasing the number of specialist provision places in new and refurbished buildings for students with SEND.

As noted in our recent positive Ofsted/CQC revisit inspection, the identification and assessment of CYP with SEND in Bristol is improving, with the Ordinarily Available Provision document detailing interventions to meet needs, within typical school assessment and support processes. There has been a cultural shift in the way that professionals and schools, work together which is improving the way that they work together to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND.

It’s important to know that not every child with an EHC plan will need a specialist provision place. For many, their needs can – and should – be met by a mainstream school place and that, depending on their needs and the school, this environment is the better option. 

In Bristol we have a clear Ordinarily Available Provision offer on Bristol’s Local Offer website, which details the resources and support we expect to be available for all children and young people with SEND in mainstream education settings. Mainstream schools in our city are working towards becoming more inclusive and aim to provide an environment, culture and education ethos that enables all our children, no matter what their additional needs are, to feel a sense of belonging. However, the level of need and increasing demand for specialist school places in Bristol means it is right that we have this 450 target and ambition in place.