There is considerable detail on where current provision is made and where new places are to be created in the Commissioning Plan for Education Provision in Kent, published last year.
175 of these places will be in current Special Schools or new “satellites”, the biggest proposal being for 96 new places for high functioning (able) children with ASD/SLCN Statements at the re-designated Furness School in Hextable. This will double the current county provision currently based in East Kent at Laleham Gap School, although a group of parents in Sittingbourne is attempting to set up another Free School there with the same aims.
Another 100 new places will be in Units based in mainstream schools. Units provide education and support within their own environment using specialist staff, but as the children develop, they increasingly introduce them to mainstream classes as and when they are ready for this.
The popularity of Units is demonstrated by the fact that nearly all are full and numbers continue to grow. There are 19 in primary schools, and 22 in secondary. For schools, a major drawback of Units is that their children are included in examination performance statistics, which often has a negative effect in school league tables.
However the good news is that KCC has already opened two new Units as part of its expansion plans, at: Ashford Oaks (ASD); at Sittingbourne Community College (SLCN); and two additional specialisations to existing secondary Units – New Line Learning Academy and Pent Valley Technology College for Visual Impairment. Kent is commissioning five new Primary Free Schools to meet growing demand, and plans to put Units into each of these: 12 ASD in Folkestone and Kings Hill; and 28 BESD in Sheppey, Leybourne and Holborough (near Snodland).
This is against a controversial background of events four years ago, when KCC officers began to implement a policy to phase out Units across the county, without the knowledge of Members of the Council, although the policy was published on the KCC website. Officers quietly stopped all new admissions in pilot areas of the scheme to replace Units, whilst discouraging parents in others to take up places. I challenged this policy, whose existence was denied at the highest level, eventually persuading Members of what was happening, with the strong campaigning support of Kent On Sunday. After a difficult battle, Members finally reversed the policy in October 2010 (although continuing to maintain publicly that there had been no such policy).
Three years on, KCC appears to be supporting SEN Units attached to mainstream schools, although the documents are actually quite vague on this. Sadly, 13 Units closed in the intermediate years, some because of a fall in numbers, others because of school policies to close Units, taking with them invaluable loss of experience and expertise.
Meanwhile, KCC is exploring new funding formulae coming down from government, which reduce the amount of money in school budgets providing SEN support in mainstream schools. One consequence of this is that some schools discourage children with SEN from applying for places with them, not only because of league table issues, but now financial penalties for supporting these children. As has happened in the past, this becomes a vicious circle, for the school with a reputation for being good with SEN, attracts a higher proportion of such children, which drags down its academic standing and then its popularity with other families.
As always, SEN will remain a politically controversial area, this article only scratching the surface of some of the challenges ahead.