In Bristol we are ambitious for our children, families, and young people. Children’s services and education in Bristol are a complex set of services that provide a diverse offer of support across all communities. These services are united by our ambition to support all children, families and young people to thrive.
Achieving our ambitions means overcoming challenges at every level. From overcoming failing national policy in these areas, to securing the funding needed to balance increasingly challenging budgets and ensuring the right skills, knowledge and experience are in place locally to deliver – though the list of challenges is lengthy.
We believe the effort is worth it and we are fully committed to putting in the work needed to build sustainable, child focused, diverse, responsible and enterprising services.
This week at cabinet, with the Mayor and colleagues, I approved a plan that outlines the major programme of work we are delivering that is seeing us transform Children’s and Education services from top to bottom. This programme, made up of tens of smaller projects, across all services, is ensuring the needs of children, families and young people are identified and can be met whilst balancing the ever challenging financial strain on the local government system.
To achieve this we are listening to what parents, carers and young people tell us they need for themselves and for their families to thrive, and we use this valuable insight to inform the plans and strategies that will help deliver the best possible outcomes.
While focus groups, engagement sessions, and co-production are by no means an exact science, they are baked into every new plan and strategy we develop. Alongside input from our partners in health, education, and social care, this helps to ensure that that we are always considering the voices of parents, carers, and young people.
Two key areas of focus for us, alongside the wider programme of work, were highlighted when the new special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) Accelerated Progress Plan (APP), and the updated Children’s Services Improvement Plan 2023-25, were approved at Cabinet this week.
Parents and carers tell us that improving trust and relationships across the local area goes hand-in-hand with developing SEND services. Therefore, our APP has been informed by three focus groups with parents and carers, alongside colleagues from education, health, and care.
This plan sets out our vision for improvement in SEND provision and the values that will drive the required change, strategic oversight of improvements and the actions we will take to address the weaknesses identified by inspectors. With the recent announcement that Bristol now has a formal Parent Carer Forum, as well as our Community of Groups representing over 20 different community and parent organisations, we are already on track alongside the Bristol, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire (BNSSG) Integrated Care Board (ICB) and our local area partners to jointly deliver this plan.
Although the Government’s much anticipated new SEND and alternative provision (AP) plan published in March did not go far enough in either funding or ambition, and with the current national SEND system needing a reset to make it work better for all children and families, with its compass set firmly towards inclusivity, right now, we will continue to drive change and make the improvements that parents and carers tell us will make a real difference.
Equally important in the development and provision of appropriate services is the voice of the young person. That’s why our overarching Bristol’s Belonging Strategy for Children and Young People 2021-24 was informed by and co-produced with the young people of Bristol. In the recent Ofsted inspection of Children’s Services (January), inspectors noted that ‘children in care have a strong voice, both as individuals and collectively’, and that ‘issues raised by children about the things that are important to them are addressed’. Three out of five key areas of the inspection found that we required improvement to be good, and in response to this we have developed a new Children’s Services Improvement Plan 2023-25. The plan reflects the strategic intent of the Belonging Strategy vision which also underpins the Council’s Corporate Strategy.
The main purpose of the Improvement Plan is to deliver Ofsted’s recommendations and the required improvements from the inspection findings, of which a key area is the voice of children and young people. To do this we will review our current co-production, engagement, and participation arrangements. This will help us to improve our strategic understanding of the experiences of children. By listening to children and young people we can adapt our service design to better meet their needs. The themes of the plan reflect a child’s journey through our services and highlight the leadership and system-wide arrangements necessary to deliver good services and outcomes for children.
Overarching and informing all of this work is the new Our Families Programme (Children and Education), a £21.4 million whole-system transformation project that was also approved by June Cabinet, with an immediate spend of up to £4.78 million to support its delivery.
The premise of the programme is that it will design effective and sustainable services with, and for, children, young people, and families through a whole system change process. By addressing the challenges across major council portfolios, including Children’s services and Education, we can achieve better outcomes and have a positive impact on our children, young people and families.
Greater stability and resilience will not be achieved by focusing on one area alone.
As I stated at the start of this blog, we are ambitious for our children, families, and young people in Bristol. This is an exciting time and opportunity to be working together, with children, families and young people, and partners, to shape the future, make further progress, and create equitable opportunities.