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Parents battle to secure support for Norfolk children with special educational needs

PUBLISHED: 08:59 16 March 2017 | UPDATED: 16:01 16 March 2017

The trust which runs the Parkside School in Norwich is opening up a new school for children with autism. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The trust which runs the Parkside School in Norwich is opening up a new school for children with autism. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2016

Dwindling cash for complex needs support and oversubscribed specialist schools have left some parents claiming they face a battle to secure help for some of the region’s most vulnerable children.

Barry Payne, executive headteacher of the Parkside School. Picture: Andy DarnellBarry Payne, executive headteacher of the Parkside School. Picture: Andy Darnell

As schools feel the pinch of cuts and rising costs, headteachers, forced to make savings where they can, are losing in-house Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) support, leaving parents struggling to source specialist provision.

It is a trend which, in Norfolk, has seen a 10pc rise in the number of children attending specialist schools in just four years - and one which has created demand which massively outweighs supply.

Norfolk County Council has turned to the independent education sector to find places for hundreds of SEND children both in and outside of Norfolk, with 459 pupils educated in the non-maintained sector in 2014/15 alone, costing £12.7m.

The following year, the figure rose to 513 - at a cost of £14.5m - and as of December 2016 it was 503, costing £12m this financial year.

Nicki Price, founder of SENsational Families. Picture: Nicki PriceNicki Price, founder of SENsational Families. Picture: Nicki Price

The figures were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act as part of this newspaper’s Fighting For Their Futures campaign.

Barry Payne, executive headteacher of the Parkside School in Norwich, for children with complex needs, is behind the new £12m Wherry Free School in Norwich, due to open in September for children with autism.

He said that should prevent some special needs children in the future being sent out of county.

Mr Payne said 150 families had expressed an interest in sending their children to the new school - three times the number of places they were opening with.

Deputy Lord Mayor of Norwich helps starts the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Wherry School on Hall Road in Norwich for children with autism. Photo: ArchantDeputy Lord Mayor of Norwich helps starts the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Wherry School on Hall Road in Norwich for children with autism. Photo: Archant

The school will eventually have enough places for 100 children with autism within three years.

“There is a lot of demand,” Mr Payne said. “There has been a big growth in children diagnosed with autism.”

Earlier this month, the Department for Education announced that it would give £4m to SEND education in Norfolk and Suffolk over three years - cash which, though welcomed, Mr Payne described as a “drop in the ocean”.

The problems are compounded by the switch in 2014 from statements of special needs - a document which formalises a child’s complex SEND needs - to education, health and care (EHC) plans, which parents say are time-consuming, complex and costly.

The government has announced it will give £2.7m to Norfolk County Council and £1.3m to Suffolk County Council to improve special educational needs and disability (SEND) facilities. Photo: Dave Thompson/PA WireThe government has announced it will give £2.7m to Norfolk County Council and £1.3m to Suffolk County Council to improve special educational needs and disability (SEND) facilities. Photo: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Parents must apply to the local authority to have an EHC assessment - if refused, they can decide to appeal at a tribunal.

SEND can range from behavioural problems or issues that affect concentration levels to conditions limiting physical ability.

Nicki Price is the founder of Norfolk SENSational families, a support group which has grown from eight members last year to more than 420 now.

She said: “People are getting refused and having to go to tribunals and the standard of information you have to provide is extremely high.

“Sadly, these issues are really widespread. We need more training in mainstream schools - often they don’t understand what the issues are so can’t begin to tackle them.

“More families feel as though their children aren’t being looked after in mainstream schools and there’s a scrabble for places at special schools.”

In Suffolk, a report from inspectors Ofsted claimed that parents had to “fight every step of the way” to secure help since the changes.

Inspectors issued a “statement of action” asking Suffolk authorities to identify how they will tackle areas of “significant weaknesses”.

To tackle the demand, Norfolk County Council, which has a duty to review SEND provision, said it was commissioning a new 90-place academy in west Norfolk for children with social, emotional and mental health issues (SEMH) and moving the complex needs Chapel Road School, currently in Attleborough, onto a new site in Old Buckenham to double its capacity.

It also said it had recruited three extra casework staff to help with the workload of the move to EHC plans.

One headteacher, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “If we are asked to take a SEND child halfway through the year, it’s a really horrible position to be in.

“There’s just no money for them - once the initial funding and cluster funding is gone, there’s nothing left. You look at their needs and think ‘how can I afford that? What will I have to take from another child to support this one?’”

‘He has been completely failed’

The mum of a 12-year-old boy says she feels he has been “completely failed” after being excluded from the academy he attended.

Kayleigh Gray’s son has not been in school for 11 months after he was excluded last May from City Academy Norwich (CAN).

Despite assurances he would receive support for his ADHD, his mother, from Earlham, said nothing materialised.

“He didn’t adapt well to the change of going through primary school into high school,” she said. “We as a family did everything possible to ensure he had a good start.”

But soon after starting at secondary school he was transferred to The Hub, on-site alternative provision at CAN, and given online learning modules, which Mrs Gray said did not suit his needs and left him “frustrated”.

Since then, he has been enrolled on an e-learning scheme.

“He can go all day just in the house,” said Mrs Gray, who waited months for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) for her son. “It is not doing his state of mind any good. He wants to be in school and he wants to learn.”

She says the family was promised regular calls for support, which have not materialised, and said she feels “completely failed”.

A spokesman for CAN said: “We always work tirelessly to ensure that every single student who requires SEND support has the right interventions and help in place as quickly as possible.

“Particularly in more complex cases, securing this support can involve multiple agencies outside of the school and – for reasons beyond the control of the school - it can take time to put in place.

“We recognise the frustration and distress that any delay may cause to parents and children. That is why City Academy Norwich has worked proactively and successfully with partner organisations to speed up SEND support. We categorically stand by our record of doing this in order to provide the best available support for each individual child.”

‘Schools can’t cope with needs’

A 14-year-old Norwich boy with ADHD has been out of school since the end of last year.

Laurie Coe’s son was expelled from his school in December, and a lack of provision means he is yet to be told where he will move onto.

Mrs Coe, who lives in Norwich, said the fact that her son does not lag far behind the national average means it has been difficult getting him an EHCP, while she claims teachers at his high school did not understand his needs.

“When he was at junior school he was doing really, really well and was getting great support,” she said. “But when he transitioned (to secondary school) that’s when it stopped.

“Despite them knowing he has ADHD, he was getting detentions for things like forgetting a pen, forgetting a calculator.

“There seems to be a lot of children being excluded because schools can’t cope with their needs.”

• Read more from our Fighting For Their Futures campaign here

• Have you been affected by these issues? Email lauren.cope@archant.co.uk

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