Special report: ‘Dangerous and immoral’ Concerns about changes to Northamptonshire’s special education landscape
Following an overhaul of alternative provision and proposed funding cuts to some maintained nurseries, major change is now planned for special needs education
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By Sarah Ward
Since the reorganisation of local government in Northamptonshire eleven months ago, there has been a quiet revolution happening in the education system in Northamptonshire.
With the independent children’s trust taking over responsibility for social care and child protection it has meant children’s services bosses in the two new unitary councils have had more time to focus on their responsibilities as an education authority, with a prominent concern being to bring the budgets back into line and improve attainment at secondary level.
For many years an increasing spend on services for special needs and vulnerable children - caused by a growing number of children with special needs, a larger population and a special school estate not keeping pace - has meant more money has been taken out of the overall schools block budget and several millions has gone into the bank accounts of out of county special independent special schools due to a shortage of places in Northamptonshire. It has also meant the service across Northamptonshire has a budget deficit running into the millions. (This is a national problem as government budgets have not matched needs and Northamptonshire is not alone in having a deficit, with many other local authorities in much greater financial debt).
Education bosses have been warning for many years of a crisis, with former senior education officer Gwyn Botterill saying in the early days of the pandemic in May 2020 that a perfect storm was brewing with even independent special school places in nearby areas running out, while the number of special needs children, or those with an educational health care plan, rapidly increasing in Northamptonshire.
She also pointed to a much lower than national average of children with an Education Health Care Plan staying in mainstream schools in Northamptonshire.
The current estimate is that in the next three years an additional 1000 special school places will be needed to cater for the growing demand in Northants. Currently more than 2000 children are in special schools.
The opening of The Chelveston School in Rushden this summer provided just 27 of those places (it will grow to more than 100 eventually) and there have been additional places created at the existing special schools in the county.
There are also hopes for a 250 place special school in West Northants in the next few years, although with no site and no budget, a loan will have to be taken by the council to fund it.
The new unitaries have both taken on highly paid consultants to oversee the education departments of the councils. As interim assistant directors of education Chris Kiernan and Anne Marie Dodds both worked under the former director of children’s services, Cathi Hadley (who has since left the service).
Shortly after arriving at the North unitary in June last year Anne Marie Dodds, made her attentions clear, saying that big change was coming.
‘I’m a woman for action not chat I’m afraid’, she told the North unitary’s executive advisory panel for education.
The officer told the listening councillors that she would try things before thinking too long about them and action would be taken fast.
Since then in a bid to get budgets into line and shake up services Dodds and Kiernan have overhauled the alternative provision service in the county. Alternative provision is for those students who have largely been excluded from mainstream education. Previously this alternative provision was largely supplied by the CE Academy, a chain run by experienced headteacher Bobby Kelly, with bases right across the county. Priding itself on its education focus, with many students coming out at the end of their time at CE with a good cluster of GCSE qualifications, for several years the service was rated as outstanding and lauded both in the county and further afield, but its rating fell to inadequate in a mid pandemic Ofsted inspection, with inspectors pointing to safeguarding concerns.
Head Bobby Kelly has disputed the inspections findings, but straight away the local authorities made a decision to remove students from CE Academy and place them elsewhere.
Bobby Kelly maintained at the time that this was a decision led by financial reasoning. When councillors in the North of the county have asked questions about what has happened to re-schooled CE children and where they have gone, the answer from Anne Marie Dodds has been that each decision is being made on an individual basis.
Next on the list has been redistributing the funding of the maintained nurseries. These are nurseries run by their local authorities. There are just a handful remaining in the county.
Currently the two most prestigious, which offer the most comprehensive support to its families, are Pen Green Centre in Corby and Camrose Early Years Nursery in Northampton.
Both are facing having six figure sums removed from their existing budgets and given to the other nurseries. This is undoubtedly being welcomed by the other nurseries (whose budgets are tight with some even in deficit) but Pen Green says the cuts would decimate its services (it could lose several hundred thousand pounds) and the leader of the Labour opposition at West Northamptonshire Council Gareth Eales has said the decision to cut funding ‘beggars belief’ when the authority has millions in reserves.
So it is among that background of having upset some outstanding and experienced educationalists in Northamptonshire that Dodds and Kiernan are now leading moves to restructure the way SEN provision works in Northamptonshire and usher in a move to what is termed as inclusion - keeping SEN children in mainstream schools.
The proposals - dangerous and immoral?
The plans are to fundamentally restructure the way children who have special learning needs and EHC plans are schooled.
(Both councils currently have a large backlog on the EHC assessments and many are not being done in the statutory timeframe set out by the government. So in order to increase capacity both councils have channelled hundreds of thousands of pounds into taking on more staff to process the EHCs quicker.)
As part of the reshaping, both councils are undertaking a review of the independent school places. It is unclear what action will happen once this review is undertaken.
In the North the proposal is to create an inclusive classroom ethos, so that more SEN children can remain within mainstream schools. The council says the reforms will make it easier for schools to access additional resources without the need for an EHC plan.
North Northamptonshire will also be split into four areas on geographical lines, with a specialist local authority team for each area and schools will be split into clusters, sharing expertise. The existing special schools will also be asked to offer an outreach service.
In the West the authority has a four point plan to deal with the financial issues - which it says could lead to an £8m deficit if significant action is not taken. Work includes mapping the current availability of special schools, commissioning more places in mainstream and creating a new school but all three plans are currently red rated in the risk register, meaning they are urgently needed and could face difficulties.
NN Journal is aware of some concern in the North of the county about the proposals. One councillor said ‘It now looks to me that the council’s own special schools are being placed under pressure to take on too many children without having the capacity.’
We have also seen correspondence from a primary school head in which strong concern has been expressed about a move to increase the number of places in existing special schools. They complained of the ‘unacceptable and dangerous position’ one special school head teacher was being placed in due to an oversubscription of children.
“It is morally and ethically wrong, and I appeal to you to investigate how the local authority will address and support the necessary increases in building capacity, experienced staff and overall adequate provision for all children especially those with complex SEND.’
In the West the authority is holding a SEND peer review on March 30 and asking for input from families of special educational needs children.
Labour Cllr Danielle Stone, who was a teacher herself, says the situation is concerning, as class sizes in many Northamptonshire mainstream schools are already too large and she does not agree with the situation over recent years which has seen Northamptonshire schools expanded rather than new ones built.
“That is not the answer. We all know that children thrive in smaller schools where each individual child is known by all the staff and classes are kept to a reasonable number.
In my view it is counter productive to add to the pressures that schools are already under.”
She said if the local education authority was serious about inclusion it would be looking at reducing class sizes, not increasing them. She was also not agreeable with staff from special schools having to provide outreach services to mainstream schools.
The North wants to have its new operating model in place by June and the West is also moving ahead at pace.
Whether there will be the public outcry over these changes as there were to the changes in the alternative provision environment and planned funding cuts to some mainstream nurseries remains to be seen.
If you are a parent or teacher concerned about the proposed changes you can contact Sarah Ward in confidence at email@example.com or on 07887 500545
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