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Radical special schools reform

PUBLISHED: 09:37 07 June 2006 | UPDATED: 10:58 22 October 2010

STEVE DOWNES

Hundreds more children with special needs could be educated in mainstream schools as part of the biggest overhaul of provision in Norfolk for decades. A radical new blueprint proposes a school-based network of specialist units for youngsters with a range of problems including autism, hearing and sight loss, and learning difficulties - giving parents and children more choice.

Hundreds more children with special needs could be educated in mainstream schools as part of the biggest overhaul of provision in Norfolk for decades.

A radical new blueprint proposes a school-based network of specialist units for youngsters with a range of problems including autism, hearing and sight loss, and learning difficulties - giving parents and children more choice.

Some of Norfolk's 12 special needs schools could close or merge with neighbours to cater for “complex needs” as more youngsters with “moderate learning difficulties” are opt for mainstream places.

Education officers say the overall number of places in special schools will stay the same.

They “hope” more parents will choose mainstream provision - but insist children will not be forced “against their wishes” to integrate into the schools.

The proposals reopen the 30-year debate about whether special needs children are better served in mainstream schools, making them feel more a part of society, or in separate units because mainstream schools are not suited to meeting their more challenging needs.

There are 3,875 children with a statement of special educational needs in Norfolk - of whom 977 attend special schools in the county.

Some 142 children are educated out of Norfolk because provision for their needs is so poor - costing hundreds of thousands of pounds and increasing isolation for the youngsters - and the proposals are aimed at cutting this number.

Education officers also hope the setting-up of units next to schools for children with behavioural difficulties will reduce the number of youngsters expelled.

They say the plans - out for consultation until August 14 - will give parents and young people more choice and let more children with special needs be educated close to home and with friends.

The document proposes:

t at least one complex needs school in central, east, west, north and south Norfolk, providing expertise in a wider range of problems than the current network of special schools

t a number of bases in mainstream schools - again across the five areas- with expertise and facilities in areas like learning difficulties, autism and behavioural problems

t another network of bases at mainstream schools just for children with autistic spectrum disorders, including autism and Asperger's syndrome

t extra units across Norfolk for children with sensory loss, including hearing or sight. Currently, all of the provision is in Norwich.

Michael Bateman, Norfolk County Council's strategy manager for special educational needs and children with disabilities, said: “These proposals will give real choice to children and parents.

“They will also reduce the travel time for these children. At the moment, children with the most significant and vulnerable needs have the longest journey times.”

He said the reduction in costs for transporting children to school would allow more money to be spent on special needs provision.

Mr Bateman added: “No child who is currently in a special school will be forced to go to the mainstream provision. But we hope parents will choose it because it's closer to home and meets their needs more fully.”

The sensitivity of the debate was highlighted when last year Baroness Warnock, who chaired a 1970s inquiry which ushered in the policy of including pupils with learning difficulties in mainstream classrooms, called for a “radical” review.

She said a new inquiry was needed, and suggested reversing the trend by providing more special schools.

The Commons education select committee is currently undertaking such an inquiry into special educational needs provision including the quality of provision in mainstream schools and special schools, how to raise attainment for children and involving parents in decisions.

When the consultation period ends in Norfolk, the responses will be analysed before the proposals are taken to the county council's children's services review panel on September 6 and to cabinet for a final decision on September 11.

The following consultation events are being held across Norfolk, all from 10am to 8pm:

t Fakenham Racecourse, June 7

t Park Farm Hotel, Norwich Road, Hethersett, June 19

t Knights Hill Hotel, South Wootton, near King's Lynn, June 22

t The Kings Centres, Queen Anne's Road, Yarmouth, July 5

t Quality Hotel, Barnard Road, Bowthorpe, near Norwich, July 6.

Children and young people can take part in the consultation by visiting www.norfolkblurb.co.uk.

Other people can visit www.norfolk.gov.uk/SENstrategy or www.YourNorfolkYourSay.org.

Alternatively, call Suzy Ladd or Michael Bateman on 0844 8008001.


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