We won't send children to troubled school yet, says council, despite praise

Mark Leggett pictured with his son Zachary, who has autism and other related disabilities

Mark Leggett pictured with his son Zachary, who has autism and other related disabilities - Credit: Mark Leggett

Autistic children will not be sent to a troubled school until it does more to clean up its act — despite inspectors praising it. 

Suffolk County Council suspended new placements at Acorn Park School (APS), in Banham, south Norfolk, in early 2020 when it received an "inadequate" rating from Ofsted. 

At the time inspectors slammed the leadership for its lack of direction and weak curriculum, as well as hiring staff who "lacked basic skills".

But while the latest Ofsted visit in September said school leadership had become "more effective", the council's decision to suspend new pupil placements has not changed.

A spokeswoman said it was not yet reassured "all concerns raised have been resolved". 

Acorn Park School, Banham

Acorn Park School in Banham. - Credit: Sonya Duncan

In early November, parents received an email from APS's head of service, Peter Marshall, stating he was "delighted" with Ofsted's findings.

He told parents the interim visit found that safeguarding was effective, the leadership had strengthened and systematic failures were being addressed.

Concluding the email, he said: "We are anticipating a full inspection anytime now. 

"In the meantime, I hope this very positive interim inspection gives you further confidence in the standards and progress at Acorn Park, and I hope you will support me in congratulating the team leading this change." 

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Parent complaints continue

But for Mark Leggett, whose autistic son Zachary, 10, currently attends APS, congratulating the school's leadership team is the last thing he feels like doing.

The 40-year-old, who lives in Gorleston, said he wished Norfolk County Council would take the same stance against APS as Suffolk and defer new placements entirely — something it has so far refrained from doing. 

He submitted a formal complaint to the school this week.

Mark (right) said he felt the school was giving up on his son Zachary

Mark (right) said he felt the school was giving up on his son Zachary - Credit: Mark Leggett

"Constant changes have left my son feeling confused and avoidant, when he's in school," he said.

"And then two weeks ago I was told the school would be sending me a 28-day notice to revoke Zach's placement entirely because they apparently can't meet his needs. 

"He's been there since April 2020 and I've not heard them say this before. 

"They're blaming him for his difficult behaviour rather than themselves, but he has a serious disability.  

"They knew that when they accepted him, but now it seems they're getting rid of him to make their lives easier.

"They've left him in the lurch before the Christmas holidays. It's disgraceful."

He added: "Being out of school is going to make his issues worse. I don't understand why they can't support him until he at least finds a new placement."

Norfolk's cabinet member for children's services, John Fisher, said the council was working to find another long-term school place suitable for Zach's needs. 

"We are committed to ensuring every child and young person with SEND in Norfolk has the best education provision possible", Cllr Fisher added.

John Fisher, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's services. Pic: Norfolk County Coun

John Fisher, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's services. - Credit: Norfolk County Council

Parent Beth Knight, from Halesworth, said she had been in Mr Leggett's position and felt for the family. 

She recently won a disability discrimination case against the school after her daughter Chloe was unfairly expelled, with staff falsely claiming it was because "they couldn't meet her needs".

Ms Knight said: "As soon as your child stops playing ball they don't like it."

In response to Mr Leggett's accusations, an APS spokesman said: "The safeguarding of vulnerable young people is of paramount importance. 

"We have a moral and legal obligation to ensure that young people in our care are fully protected. 

"As such, we cannot divulge confidential information." 

Beth Knight (left) and her daughter Chloe have won a discrimination case against APS

Beth Knight (left) and her daughter Chloe have won a discrimination case against APS - Credit: Beth Knight

No stranger to criticism

APS currently provides specialist care for 90 pupils, who arrive via placement by the local authority. 

In 2020 the school was downgraded from “good” to “inadequate”. 

Earlier this year, SEND expert Janet Willicott presented a report to APS outlining the testimonies of 13 parents who were furious with how management had treated their children.

Labour's lead for children and young people in Norfolk, Mike Smith-Clare, echoed Ms Willicott's frustration, adding that "too many SEND learners had been cut adrift and had their needs ignored".

But despite widespread criticism of APS in recent years, both Norfolk and Suffolk county councils have spent millions of pounds on placements. 

More than £1m of money is paid to the school each year by Norfolk County Council, while a Freedom of Information request revealed that between 2015-2020, Suffolk County Council spent £5,713,041 on 88 pupil placements.