Of some 6,500 Kent pupils currently with SSEN, around 3000 are in Special Schools, and 800 in Units. Most of the remainder are supported in mainstream schools. In total, these children comprise some 2.8% of the school population, but take up around 20% of the county direct school education budget.
Over half of the places in Special Schools are for children with Profound, Severe and Complex Needs (PSC), most of which have recently expanded to take in around 250 extra children in total.
Kent is now proposing a further expansion of 361 places for ASD, SLCN and BESN in Special Schools and Units. 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 on pp 61-72 published last year, and elsewhere on this website.
175 of these places will be in current Special Schools or new “satellites”, many of these schools having already expanded over the last two years.
The biggest proposal is for 96 new places for high functioning (able) children with ASD/SLCN Statements at the re-designated Furness School in Hextable. The school has been in serious trouble in recent years, seeing KCC pouring large sums of money into it to try and improve standards. It has now reached OFSTED 'Requires Improvement' in December, up from a disastrous Special Measures in 2012. The school is now being taken over by the Lilac School Academy Group, who will no doubt benefit from this 'investment'. Currently the school has no children at all in Year 7, but will Lilac Sky seek to run it with its current BESN as well as the proposed the new ASD classification? The new school would double the current county provision for high functioning ASD which is all 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.
Otherwise, as a group, Special Schools provide the highest OFSTED standards amongst Kent schools, with three having been found 'Outstanding' - Ifield School, Gravesend (PSC), Harbour School, Dover (BESN), Milestone School, New Ash Green (PSC), another 15 'Good', and just four 'Requires Improvement' or the previous 'Satisfactory'.
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. For parents there is a concern that standards are not high enough at too many of the schools with Units, 10 of them having failed OFSTED Inspections in recent years.
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). Presumably, the agreed sponsors of these have approved the principle.
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. I am assuming this does not reflect any drift against Units towards some other form of unspecified provision, as happened in 2010. Sadly, 13 Units have closed in the intermediate years, some because of a fall in numbers, fall-out from the policy to phase out Units, taking with them invaluable loss of experience and expertise. Others appear to have closed as some schools and academies have developed different priorities, for a Unit is often not seen as enhancing a school's key targets.
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. I will add to it when the SEN Strategy is published.