Four new special schools in bold vision to ease pressure on complex needs places
Four new special schools and several support units are part of a sweeping vision to ease huge pressure on places for Norfolk’s vulnerable children.
Demand for places at special schools has soared in recent years, along with the number of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP), a formal support document for children with complex needs.
It has seen immense pressure on places at the county’s 13 special schools, with children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) either stuck in mainstream schools - themselves battling a funding crisis - or a steep number in costly independent school placements.
Norfolk County Council’s children’s services team has put forward a vision to ease the strain, including four new special schools, more specialist resource bases (SRB) (specialist units at mainstream schools), and options to see some children travel more independently.
They hope it would see children taught closer to home, saving roughly £6m a year in placement and travel costs.
Penny Carpenter, chairman of the children’s services committee, said: “Children with special educational needs and disabilities are among our most vulnerable children and we want them to be able to go to good schools, near to their homes and families.
“We know that a big programme of work is needed and we need to look at the best places for new schools and explore how we can finance what will be significant capital investment.”
The plans would see an extra 170 SRB places, on top of the existing 244.
At the children’s services meeting on Tuesday July 10 the committee will be asked to agree plans to explore a feasibility study into the expanded provision.
The government has pledged £215m for special needs provision from 2018 to 2021, with Norfolk to see £2.7m in that period. But the plans would be costly - the council estimates the cost of a new build school with 100 to 150 pupils is roughly £13m.
Ongoing pressure saw the council’s high needs block - funding dedicated for vulnerable children - report an overspend of £10.6m last year, with a forecast overspend of £3.1m this year.
The papers also show while the council has, in the past, received roughly 600 referrals for EHCPs in a year, that number has started to top 1,000. The government expects councils to carry out 90pc of EHCP assessments in 20 weeks - but the council only achieved 5.8pc in 2016 and 9.3pc in 2017.
Lack of places costs taxpayers millions
The lack of places in special schools is forcing the council to spend millions of pounds on independent placements.
Papers released ahead of Tuesday’s meeting say the council funds roughly 1,600 places across the 13 complex needs schools, with an average cost of £25,000.
But they say the figure is roughly £23,000 less than that in an independent sector - where an average place costs £48,000.
The percentage of children in Norfolk who are educated in the independent sector is “significantly” higher than that in other local authorities, due to “insufficient” special school places.
Currently, there are just over 300 SEND pupils placed in independent schools in Norfolk or in other local authorities, with a number of those being residential placements.
While the average placement cost is £48,000, the most expensive annually in Norfolk is £85,000.
It means the sums spiral quickly - if all of the 300 placements cost £48,000 a year, it would cost the council £14.4m.
For parents, the plans will be welcome - but the reaction for many? “About time.”
Families have long known the solution - more places, bases, funding.
Parents of vulnerable children say the fight to see them receive support is a full-time job. It is tiring. It is thankless.
And in the past, they have felt unvalued. There has been positive news - the new Chapel Green School special school in Old Buckenham, Wherry School in Norwich and Fen Rivers Academy in King’s Lynn have been big steps in the right direction.
But last year an SRB was set to close at Open Academy - a proposal by its trust, not the council - and was only saved after a fight by parents. Last month, some spoke out against a council proposal to create “collection points”, from which some vulnerable children would be picked up and dropped off, rather than their front door.
This vision is welcome. Things must change. But it must materialise before parents can truly join in the celebration.
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