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Schools and parents of SEND children hit out at BCP Council’s plan to sign up to the Department for Education’s Safety Valve programme

By: Liz Hendrie liz.hendrie@advertiserandtimes.co.uk

Published: 03:00, 02 February 2024

EVERY parent of a school age child should be worried about this” was the stark warning in response to BCP Council’s plans to push more children with special educational needs into mainstream schools to cut costs.

The cash-strapped authority has been asked by the Department for Education to sign up to its so-called Safety Valve programme, which is designed essentially to bail out struggling councils who have overspent on their “high needs” budget.

In exchange, councils must curb spending on their provision for SEND children to avoid the deficit, which for BCP stands at £35.8m, building up again.

BCP Council wants to sign up to the government’s Safety Valve Campaign under a 15-year framework

BCP wants to slash the number of children with special needs being placed in independent specialist schools, which is costly to the council, instead putting requirements on mainstream schools to provide places.

But parents, teachers and SEND children packed out a meeting of the council’s children’s services overview and scrutiny committee to voice massive concern over the proposals.

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Bob Frances, a grandfather of three SEND children, said he and his family had “battled” the system for 14 years to get the support needed.

“All children of school age are at the heart of the Safety Valve programme,” he said. “Every parent of a school age child should be worried about this.

“Your child will not cope with mine, mine will not cope with yours; teachers will not cope with the number of SEN children that will be incorporated into mainstream.

“Our already overstretched teachers have not had the training to cope with children that are mute, have learning difficulties, flap their hands, screech and scream, bang their heads in frustration, and are aggressive and swear.

“They won’t have the time to provide the support needed.”

Mum Kerry Friend, who said her son had been “totally failed” by the school system due to a lack of resources, said the plan “terrified” her.

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“How can it be right to reduce the resources that are already not fit for purpose?” she said. “Mainstream schools do not have the resources or staff to cope with the amount of children with SEN.

“All you will get in the next few years will be a huge amount of SEN children being failed and, in later years, needing more support and more resources.”

Fifteen-year-old Will Murray told the committee he had not been in full-time education for eight years. “That’s also how long we’ve been fighting for me to receive what every child is entitled to,” he said.

“The current provision isn’t even enough, now, for myself and countless other young people throughout BCP, so how is it going to be improved when people who have never met us make a drastic decision that will change the course of our futures?

“The idea that young people like me will be forced into a mainstream school environment with teachers and teaching assistants who are inexperienced with SEND is beyond frightening. If I had to go to mainstream school I wouldn’t be here today.”

Chief executive of BCP Council Graham Farrant made efforts to reassure those present at the meeting that the council would not commit to a plan it did not feel it could deliver or that was below the “statutory requirements”.

The Safety Valve programme would ordinarily require a council’s budget to be balanced within five years. But BCP says this is not workable and has instead proposed a 15-year plan.

“We have to persuade the Department for Education to pay for the deficit, which in 15 years time will be close to £200m,” he said.

A response from the Department for Education is expected later this month, and Mr Farrant assured the committee no decision would be made without the backing of full council.

He warned, however, that without assistance from the government, cuts would be made to other services that would be “painful”.

Labour Cllr Peter Cooper said 13 years of cuts were now “impacting massively on services”.

“We need to be saying ‘this is just not good enough’,” he said. “Local authorities are not kitted up – it’s not good enough to be asked to do a job and not have the money to do it. When are we going to raise our voices?”

The council says that under the plan it would work with schools to “review the financial arrangements” to support children in mainstream settings.

“We are also seeking to build new provision to ensure that there are more school places with support systems in place,” it added.

Nationally, 34 local authorities across the country are already signed up to the Safety Valve programme.

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