Parents say Norfolk special school is 'failing their children'

Acorn Park School in Banham that has seen a coronavirus outbreak. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Acorn Park School in Banham that has seen a coronavirus outbreak. Picture: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Thirteen parents have teamed up to raise concerns that an "inadequate" Norfolk special school is "failing to meet pupils' needs".

The parents, whose children have complex autism disorders, say their concerns relate to high staff turnover and a 'lack of professionalism' among executive management at Acorn Park independent residential and day school in Banham.

They joined forces with national special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) activist and consultant Janet Willicott, who collated the 13 parents' testimonies to “inform the Department for Education (DFE)” after a February 2020 Ofsted inspection saw Acorn Park School (APS) rated “inadequate”, and a “notice to improve” order was issued in September last year.

The school says many of the complaints outlined by parents had already been investigated, and that an improvement “action plan” was well underway.

APS, which provides specialist care for pupils with autism, Asperger's and related disabilities via local authority placement, currently has 82 pupils in its care. Annual fees for day pupils, paid by local councils, start at £62,500. 

According to dissatisfied parents, none of whom want to be named while their child remains at the APS, Norfolk and Suffolk County Councils must do more to hold the school's leadership to account. Suffolk council has, however, suspended new placements to the school.

Norfolk County Council at County Hall in Norwich

Norfolk County Council at County Hall in Norwich - Credit: Archant

One Norfolk parent said: “Our son started APS a few years ago and at that point everything was brilliant. He has severe separation anxiety, but staff at the time went above and beyond to help our son.

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“The hard work was undone overnight when the new management appeared”, she continued. “They put him in a class with nobody he knew, telling us to trust them as they know best.

“We tried to engage with them and explain our son needed familiarity, but were told if we feel our time at the school has come to an end, we were perfectly within our rights to seek a new placement."

Another parent said: “Our child, who has autism and other associated disorders, was put in a class far lower than his academic level when he joined the school - which made him angry and upset. It took six months before he was moved to an appropriate one. 

“My son is a bright boy: he struggles to manage his emotions but with staff constantly changing nobody is able to develop a bond with him to help him calm down. Staff seem unwilling to help him and every time I complain I feel we start going round in circles."

Acorn Park School in Banham that has seen a coronavirus outbreak. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Acorn Park School in Banham - Credit: Sonya Duncan

One parent, whose child has high functioning autism, ADHD and sensory issues, first started the school in 2016.

She said: "Constant changes, the loss of my child's trusted staff members and the school's failure to follow the EHCP made them extremely anxious and intimidated. Though their challenging behaviour was a result of the school environment itself, the school gave up and excluded them."

One Suffolk mother said “significant changes” made from 2019 onwards crushed her child's confidence, and that parents were rarely kept in the loop about timetable, class and curriculum changes.

Another Suffolk parent said she felt the £140,000 fees Suffolk County Council pays for their child’s placement at APS were being squandered.

She said: “There’s so many parents that feel this way, and the ones who have come forward are a fraction of the total because many were scared to speak out. The school is failing our children."

Two ex-staff members were also featured in Ms Willicott's report. Both, who have now left, said the senior executive leadership were "dismissive" of staff and parental views, and that EHCPs were not followed rigorously enough.

A spokesperson for Acorn Park School said: “A robust action plan has been put in place to support the school on its improvement journey and significant progress has been made since it was inspected in February 2020.

“In response to the complaints raised we are keen to highlight that these have been thoroughly investigated by us. Norfolk Local Authority also undertook an independent investigation in the autumn which concluded no further action was required.”

A spokesperson for Suffolk County Council said that it had suspended placements to the APS altogether until the new management team brought the school up to scratch.

They said: "We welcome any information shared with us that offers the views of parents and we will use [Ms Willicott's] report to inform our future quality assurance programme with the school.

"We have not withdrawn placements for current children at APS because Ofsted judged safeguarding to be effective, but where parents have asked for an alternative placement we have acted on this request."

Norfolk County Council, meanwhile, has not suspended placements.

Chris Snudden, director of learning and inclusion for Norfolk's children's services, part of Norfolk

Chris Snudden, director of learning and inclusion for Norfolk's children's services, part of Norfolk County Council - Credit: Julian Claxton Photography

Director of learning and inclusion Chris Snudden said: "We received a copy of [Ms Willicott's] report and will consider it as we would any complaint about an independent provider.

"We closely monitor the quality of all specialist education provision and work with schools to address any areas of concern. Where a school has an inadequate Ofsted rating we expect there to be robust plans to ensure rapid improvements.

“Parents should feel confident about raising any concerns they have about placements with us."

Former principal at the school Robert Bates said: “I want to see Norfolk and Suffolk County Council step in and take over APS for the good of the community. It has so much potential and could be a great learning environment for autistic students, without councils having to pay a fortune.”

The February Ofsted report said pupils enjoyed attending the school loved its open spaces and animal therapy and felt as though they were part of a community. 

But it also said pupils’ individual education, health and care plans (EHCP) drawn up by the local authority were not being met, and that the quality of education was poor - with new staff "failing to understand children’s needs".

Mike Smith-Clare, Labour county lead for children and young people at NCC, said: "‘I’m deeply concerned at the issues raised by parents. All children and families should expect safe and supportive education - particularly the most vulnerable. Anything less is unacceptable.”

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