Suffolk's Clare Flintoff: £45m special school cash 'extremely welcome'
In this column, Clare Flintoff – chief executive of a group of 10 Suffolk primary schools – shares her view on provision for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.
Last week Suffolk County Council formally approved proposals to improve the provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities in the county.
If the proposals go ahead, a total of £45million will be spent to provide more than 800 young people with places in one of three new schools based in Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and Lowestoft – or a number of extra or expanded specialist units in mainstream schools.
This is extremely welcome news, and is a major step forward for a county struggling to fulfil its statutory duty to this important group of young people.
The real test will be how quickly they can move to put their plans into practice, and how quickly they can improve the support around the provision.
Many of us in schools believe that we are at crisis point now.
Too many children are not in the right settings and mainstream schools are struggling and often failing to meet their needs.
Most schools will say they are ‘inclusive’, i.e. welcoming to all children regardless of their ability, behaviour or background.
Having an inclusive approach is surely right and a positive experience for all concerned.
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But children with special needs and disabilities, as well as those with behavioural issues, can find it hard to operate successfully in a classroom of 30 children – and schools can struggle to provide the adult support or specialist therapy needed.
There are children in mainstream schools in Suffolk right now who deserve better, and it is extremely distressing for schools, parents and children when the right placement can’t be found.
Sometimes this leads to drastic actions being taken – headteachers who are left with no other option than permanently excluding a child or parents who feel that the only positive choice they can make is to educate their child at home.
Nationally, the number of children being home-schooled has risen by 27% in the last year according to a survey by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services – a situation that has raised debate about whether the home environment should be registered or inspected by the local authority. Giving local authorities another responsibility at a stage when many children are being educated at home because of a lack of provision in the system would seem unrealistic.
At the beginning of January the BBC reported that families were waiting too long for special needs support in England.
In a Freedom of Information request into the time it takes local authorities to produce an Education and Health Care Plan – the plan that sets out the young person’s needs and the support which they are entitled to – we learned the longest individual wait for a plan was in Suffolk at 1,023 days.
Across the country, 26,505 applications took longer than the 20 weeks the law says councils should take to finalise them.
If Suffolk County Council’s investment is going to be fully successful, we need the whole service to children with special education needs and their families to improve.
We also need a strategic plan to deliver the staff needed to work in these new settings.
It is likely that responsibility for staffing the new schools will be handed to the schools and trusts themselves to deliver.
At a time when teaching is not seen as an attractive profession, and it is difficult enough to recruit teachers to mainstream schools, we will need a whole new team of people who have the specialist expertise, knowledge and training to support children and young people with special needs, disabilities and behavioural challenges.
This will need planning now.
There is a long way to go until we can say we are meeting the needs of our SEND pupils well in Suffolk – and we now need a determined effort to make the most of this investment.
We also need a plan that includes all areas of provision for this important group, who deserve nothing but the best.