Council U-turn on speech and language centre closures
- Credit: AMY GIBBONS
Three speech and language schools in Suffolk which had been earmarked for closure are set to be converted to specialist units attached to mainstream schools, education chiefs have said.
A consultation over changes to the county's speech and language units proposed to introduce more outreach therapists who could work in mainstream schools and provide support for a broader age range.
But among the measures was a proposal to axe the existing speech and language schools in Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft.
Now, the council's special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) team has put forward a recommendation for those three specialist schools to effectively convert to specialist units attached to mainstream schools - with those three set to get first refusal on whether they want to be the providers.
It follows the confirmation of a planned series of specialist units as part of the £45million SEND plan to create more than 800 new specialist placements.
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Conservative councillor Chris Chambers, deputy cabinet member for education at Suffolk County Council said: "In summary, the new speech, language and communication model is good news for families.
"These changes are about responding to the very significant concerns raised by service users across Suffolk about speech, language and communications services and the changes proposed by the council and the health services are a significant expansion of the offer available, with substantial real new investment at a time when resources are very limited.
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"I hope parents and other stakeholders will recognise that we have responded to their feedback in the true spirit of consultation and will see this as a positive step forward."
The clinical commissioning groups in Suffolk have committed an additional £1m in funding for recruiting speech therapists, with funding coming from the council's £45m SEND plan for the mainstream units.
The recommendations must be formally signed off by the council's cabinet at its meeting in July.
The U-turn has been welcomed by the parent campaign group, which fought vigorously for the three schools to remain open.
"It sounds like everything we have been campaigning for they have listened to," a group spokeswoman said.
"Some of those things in the recommendations we were asking for, like asking the schools to have the opportunity to become those specialist hubs.
"But we will take it with a pinch of salt until we see it home."
It comes ahead of a public meeting by the group on Monday from 7pm at the Man on the Moon pub in Ipswich, where members of the public can discuss the issue with the parent action group.
The group's efforts have been backed by Afasic - the national speech and language parental support group whose chief executive Linda Lascelles will be attending the summit.
Currently the three specialist schools cater for ages 5-7, but it is understood the converted mainstream units will accommodate 4-7 year olds, and offer a better progression of support through their school life.
If approved, the changes are set to be introduced from September 2020, meaning the three centres will continue to accept places for September 2019, albeit only offering a year instead of the usual two.
Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott said: "This is a huge victory for the parents and campaigners who have worked tirelessly to save these precious speech and language units.
"I'm pleased they forced the council to finally see sense and U-turn on their plans, but it should never have reached this point.
"Families have been put under enormous stress for a number of months, anxious about what the future may hold for their children.
"This 'new' model had already been agreed by our cross-party policy development panel back in January - why then did the council present alternative plans which undermined that process, only to change their minds again?
"This whole consultation has been a shambles from start to finish and tarnishes a positive step forward for speech and language provision in the county.
"I hope that Suffolk County Council will properly reflect and start showing a bit more empathy for the families they are meant to represent."
Anne Humphrys from the Suffolk Parent Carer Network, which works with families, said: "Significant additional investment into the new pathway means services will be more consistent across Suffolk, there will be an increase in the number of speech and language therapists and the development of an extended specialist outreach service which will mean that more children and young people will have access to the services when they need them.
"The potential closure of the speech and language units has been considered carefully as part of this work and SPCN has consistently raised the fact that there will be children and young people whose needs require more intensive specialist support beyond the new extended specialist outreach service."