Severely autistic teenager to be moved to Lincolnshire school for £250,000 a year amid lack of Norfolk places

Bill and Nicky O'Connor at their home in Great Ryburgh. Picture: Ian Burt

Bill and Nicky O'Connor at their home in Great Ryburgh. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

A Great Ryburgh couple will be forced to make a 200-mile round trip to see their severely autistic son, after a decision was made to move him to a residential school in Lincolnshire.

Dr Bill and Nicola O'Connor's son, who is non-verbal, had been a student at Sidestrand Hall School, near Cromer, where they say he made 'tremendous progress'.

But with the school unable to cater for his needs post-16, and a lack of suitable provision in Norfolk, the decision has been made to move him to an independent school 96 miles away in Lincolnshire - costing Norfolk County Council, and the taxpayer, £250,000 a year.

Earlier this month, the council's children's services team acknowledged that a lack of special school places locally meant a high number - more than 300 - of children with special educational needs were placed in independent schools, some out of county, at an average cost of £48,000 a year.

And a Freedom of Information Request from 2016/17 showed that at least £14.5m was spent on independent placements in that year.

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Dr O'Connor said the family was now resigned to the situation, but said it was 'very distressing'.

'We will have to travel 100 miles and stay overnight for the weekend to see our son,' he said. 'There is just no choice, or other provision available. We are now in a position where there will be hours of travelling just to spend some time with our child.'

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He described the cost of the placement as 'eye-watering', and said more provision should be available for vulnerable children locally.

Sarah Young, headteacher at Sidestrand Hall School, said they had explored all options for the O'Connor's son, and that the decision that they could not support him was not made lightly.

A council spokesperson said: 'Our priority is always to find a placement that can best meet each individual child's needs. Wherever possible this will be in Norfolk and we are currently looking at how we can expand the specialist provision we have in the county so that more children can go to school near their home.

'However, there are occasions where a child's needs require very specialised care and that means looking at placements elsewhere. We will always work closely with families to plan for any change in placement, as we know this can be an unsettling time for children.'

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