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Sunday, 15 March 2015 23:37

Closure Consultation on Furness School: The Future Can be Bright!

UPDATE 19 March in main article. 

The Consultation launched by the Interim Executive Board of Furness School and Kent County Council on a proposal to close the school ends on 25th March. I have written several articles on this highly flawed and controversial proposal previously, but this one looks at my perspective on the current situation. 

The first of three main reasons being put forward for the closure of this special school for high functioning children suffering from Autistic Spectrum Disorder is that parents have asked the Council to develop mainstream provision rather than further provision in Special schools. This assertion  appears now to have been discredited for KCC has been unable to provide evidence for the claim and KCC’s Corporate Director of Education has now acknowledged that there is well-evidenced increased demand for Special School places.

The key problem that parents have had responding to the Consultation is the consistent failure of KCC to answer the central questions about the proposal to close. I have the same frustration and formally requested the answers to 11 questions from Mr Leeson, questions that are also being asked by parents at meetings and in writing. Sadly, his reply to me only answered three of these. The ‘Kent On Sunday’ newspaper also asked the same questions with little success. What is the point of a Consultation where the key facts are being hidden from parents, and can it really be regarded as legitimate?

This rather lengthy article explores the powerful case for keeping the Furness School open, albeit under a different name, and yet again exposes the failures of KCC over its mismanagement of the whole issue………

 

UPDATE 19 March: (6 days before the end of the Consultation and a week after it was announced at the Parental meeting),  KCC has issued a revised Equality Impact Assessment in the face of heavy criticism of the original version. Too bad if you missed  this very late version of this legally required document, However, it appears to carry just two additional sections as follows: 'Schools that offer places to students from Furness will provide the same level of provision, or better.  Parent and student wishes will be the driver that decides where the student will be placed' and (transfer to school that is a larger than Furness will enable more flexibility of resource to support the young person’s needs)... 'This will result in individual needs continuing to be met at the same or better level in their new school'.  This in no way addresses the original criticisms of the document and is clearly untrue as evidenced for example by the families who who have been offered places in schools for children with Behavioural, Social and Emotional Difficulties, a very different disability from high functioning Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or those who have been advised to google to find their own placement. The EIA focuses strongly on the idea that high functioning ASD children will be better off in larger schools with greater opportunities. This is certainly not the view of parents who see their children flourishing in a small, safe, stable environment completely different from their experiences in large schools. Nor am I, or those  have asked, aware of any evidence to support this remarkable assertion. 

Reasons for Closure

The first reason for closure being put forward is that:

“KCC (also) recognises that parents of high functioning pupils with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are ambitious for their children and would like them to be supported in mainstream schools where they have access to high quality subject specialist teachers and access to specialist teaching facilities. Parents in North and West Kent have therefore asked the Council to develop mainstream provision rather than further provision in Special schools”.

Parents have strongly and repeatedly challenged KCC, asking for the evidence of this assertion, which not only contradicts the prime reason for changing the designation of the school to high functioning ASD last June, but goes against the strongly held views of most experts in the field. Their questions and challenges have been repeatedly ignored. I have written letters to KCC asking for evidence of the assertion, that have gone unacknowledged. Now Mr Patrick Leeson, Director of Education for KCC has stated explicitly in a letter to me:

“Your assertion that the current consultation document makes the ‘unlikely claim that there is no such demand’, for ASD Special School places, is simply mistaken. There is well evidenced increase in demand for places for students with ASD and nowhere in the Public Consultation Document does it say otherwise”.

Either he is has not been told of the false claims made in the Consultation document, or this is a U-turn by KCC.

To get a first hand sense of what it is like to be the parent of a statemented ASD child, read the comment at the foot of this article. Whilst we don't know the circumstances of this permanent exclusion, it is the nightmare of every Furness parent, except they thought they had found a safe haven. Try and put yourself in Jo's place, her child excluded because he couldn't help his disability in a mainstream school Unit. What does the future hold for this family and others like them with no Furness? When I was able to support such families (sadly I no longer have the capacity), we proved my most recent case was wrongly excluded and the exclusion was overturned, but it was agreed he should not return to the Unit which could/would not  cope with him. He was placed in a private residential school in Somerset at a cost to KCC of £150,000 p.a. His condition spiralled downward and he found himself placed in a secure unit. The failure of the system cost over £1 million in total in his childhood, and a life ruined. 

The second main reason for closure provided is that the school’s current deficit of £1.6 million accrued in just two years is unsustainable, itself a fair point. However, KCC has repeatedly refuse to answer questions by parents and myself on how this was allowed to happen and who was responsible, given the supposedly strong monitoring procedures operated by KCC which should never have allowed it. KCC officers have admitted they knew the dire financial situation of Furness School finances when the proposal to redesignate the school as one for high functioning Autistic Spectrum Disorder (HFASD) children was made last June. This deficit was dismissed as ‘baggage’ by the KCC Director of Planning at the recent parents’ meeting. Officers remain unable or unwilling to explain why they hid this from Members of the Council’s Schools and Young Persons Cabinet Committee (SYPCC), with no mention of it in the Revenue section of the proposal to redesignate either.

The third reason given for closure is an OFSTED Report of ‘Requires Improvement’ back in December 2013, even though this records considerable progress on previous Reports. No assessment of progress appears to have been made in the past year although parents at both meetings to discuss the proposal to close have declared their satisfaction with the current standards. Perhaps parental views no longer count. Kent headteachers take note!

Background

This article is based on documentation produced by KCC, records including recordings of two meetings to discuss the proposed closure organised by KCC, and an exchange of correspondence between myself and the Director of Education for Kent. To catch a flavour of KCC’s inability or refusal to answer the key questions, listen to a recording of the meeting for parents held last week. KCC uses a parallel recording to inform Council Members when they are making a final decision about closure, and the transcript of this will be very interesting.  

I have written three previous articles on what is now a complete debacle, as an essential resource for disabled children is about to be accidentally or wilfully destroyed by mismanagement, the most recent article here

There is clearly a determination by some officers at KCC to force through the closure in spite of public assertions that no decision has been made. Even the written briefing information for parents at a recent meeting was headed: “To explain our proposal to confirm the closure of Furness School”.  i.e. the decision has been made, we just need to confirm it! In a radio interview with Mr Leeson, Director of Education, at the start of the Consultation, he said that there appeared no alternative to closure. Caseworkers are working tirelessly to place many Furness children in other schools from Easter or September, presumably with the expectation that the school will then close itself. Other families are being told to find destinations themselves – I guess these are the hardest to place. This is in spite of the KCC Cabinet Member for Education advising parents that they do NOT need to look at schools or accept offers until the end of the Consultation.

High Functioning ASD Children and their families

There was a meeting for parents organised by KCC on 12th March, which was initially planned as a drop in, as few parents were expected. In the event around 50 turned up, nearly the whole cohort, itself a demonstration of the depth of feeling of parents. Parents made clear that as a body they both  needed the school to remain open as there were no suitable alternatives, and that they considered the quality of education at the school was now at a high level.  This is now a matter of painful record as one listens to the way officers attempt to evade questions over a nearly three hour meeting (KCC tried to close the meeting after an hour and forty minutes!). 

I am aware of offers of alternative schools made to about 10 of these families, with reports of others. Just two have been offered places in mainstream school SEN Units to my knowledge, one of which was refused by parents on grounds that their son has a history of exclusion in mainstream and parents were confident it would be repeated were he to be returned to a Unit. KCC case workers clearly agree that places in mainstream schools are inappropriate for most of these disabled statemented children, many of whom have been placed at Furness after mainstream school Units have been unable to cope with them. As a result, the majority have been offered places in expensive private schools often with boarding (one in Shropshire!), with parents made to feel under pressure to accept these. Many of the offers have been made by the private Meadows School in Tunbridge Wells. This is purely residential, although most of the children concerned are day pupils at Furness. Some parents were given just 24 hours to accept places, putting enormous and unacceptable pressure on highly stressed families and children whose medical conditions make stability critical. Private school fees are considerably higher than state provision, at up to £150,000 a year for boarders, so the annual cost to KCC after closure will rocket. The KCC Head of SEN agreed with parents at the meeting that “the residential facilities at Furness School are a lot cheaper for the KCC than any independent alternative”. This additional cost is not mentioned in the closure Consultation document.

Sadly, families interested in the school are now being turned away by case workers, because "it is closing", suggesting once again that officers consider the decision to be made already.

Finance

In his letter to me, Mr Leeson writing about the proposal to redesignate the school, stated:
This decision was taken in full knowledge of the financial situation and  the re-designation was expected to result in a greater number of pupils attending the school, which in turn would have improved the school's budget position. Unfortunately it has not been possible during the intervening period to  convince enough parents that Furness is an appropriate placement for their child, due to its previous poor performance . This lack of parental confidence and the reducing numbers attending Furness have made the position unviable.

This did not answer my question, which asked why there was no mention of financial issues in the proposal document sent to KCC Members for approval. Officers knew, Members of the Council, responsible for the decision did not. There is no sign of the alleged reducing numbers at Furness since the redesignation (there hasn’t been time).

KCC remains unable and unwilling to explain how it failed to control expenditure at Furness, instead allowing it to run up a £1.6 million deficit in two years. Financial rules for controlling budgets of Local Authority Schools are fierce, schools are required to submit and get approval for budgets, overlarge or overlong running deficits are simply not allowed, with other schools being forced to take action to remove or scale them down to an acceptable limit without exception, except apparently in the case of Furness. KCC even had the powers to suspend the school’s right to a delegated budget if it saw expenditure spiralling in this way. Did it do so, or was the school simply allowed to keep spending without check?

There is a strong sense that KCC wishes to move on from this ‘baggage’, without further investigation, no one is to be held accountable, all in the hope that in a few years it will all be forgotten. The £1.6 million will, whatever the outcome, be met from the general schools budget for county schools (centrally funded academies are not penalised). There is just the small question of future generations of HFASD children whose only hope of an appropriate education will lie in KCC having to meet the ongoing bills of an expensive private education for them, by a continuing levy on its remaining schools. 

KCC claimed in June 2014 that there was an expectation that numbers at the school would improve, presumably for September. SEN placements take time and by then it should have been possible to estimate numbers for the current school year. KCC is unable to explain yet again on what basis this claim was made. The proposal to redesignate, submitted to SYPCC, chose not to mention this was a criterion for success or provide any factual basis on which it was made.

The Director of Planning’s answers to questions from parents make clear that there was no attempt to promote the school in advance, let alone set out to convince parents that Furness had changed from its bad days in 2012. Indeed, he states that if the school remains open this is something to be looked at! Rather late in the day.

As well as the large sums required for re-allocating most of the 31 current children at Furness to private schools, there are of course  an increasing number of children coming through in the future. As Mr Leeson observed: “There is well evidenced increase in demand for places for students with ASD and nowhere in the Public Consultation Document does it say otherwise”.  KCC has conceded in so many ways that the closure of Furness will dramatically reduce the Authority’s capacity to providing for these children in the state system, and yet no estimate of the comparative cost of private schools against the cost of keeping Furness open is made. How can a sensible decision about closure be made without this information?

All of the staff have now been served with redundancy notices. Passing over the fact that it is unfortunate these appear to be riddled with errors and so likely to lead to claims for wrongful dismissal, around 46 staff, many long serving, will to need to be paid off. This is another considerable expenditure. The Interim Executive Board (see below) is required to handle redundancy ‘sensitively’ due to the effect on staff morale, although there is no evidence this is happening. KCC has a legal obligation to seek alternative employment for staff within KCC. So far, all that has happened is that a Mr Steve Benyon from Lilac Sky, previously Chief Executive of Isle of Wight Council before being made redundant, has had one-to-one interviews with staff, indicating to some that they may be offered posts in Lilac Sky schools in Kent. As he has no apparent connection with KCC it is difficult to see how he knows what opportunities exist in KCC schools.

The cost of the recent capital developments to the premises will naturally be written off, although the site will be very valuable in its own right, so financially there is a way for KCC to recover the losses.  

Against this, there is a clear case for the long term future of the school with demand for places certain to rise, especially if the school were to be rebranded, and so the school will be able to run without financial deficit. 

Lilac Sky Schools

This article is primarily about issues with Kent County Council,, and not about Lilac Sky, who were contracted to manage Furness for three years in 2012. However, given that the financial troubles happened under their watch, it is worth noting that according to a recent article published by the Anti-Academies Alliance, the founder of Lilac Sky recommends that ‘for profit companies’ should be allowed to work in underperforming schools.

Lilac Sky has been forced to pull out of the Tabor Academy in Essex, after the school went into Special Measures under its Sponsorship in November.  As a consequence, Lilac Sky has now been dropped as the sponsor of a new Free School in Chelmsford, Essex, the town where the company is based.  Lilac Sky currently runs three Kent primary schools and is to sponsor three new primary academies in Folkestone, Snodland and Sheppey opening in September. It took over the Sheppey project after the previous proposed sponsors, the Oasis Academy Trust, pulled out. 

Interim Executive Board

When the Board of Governors of Furness School were removed in 2012, they were replaced by a small IEB, which took over the legal responsibilities for the school, legally charged with securing a sound basis for its future improvement.

This IEB is highly experienced with three members, led by the Chair of the Kent Governors Association, who is also one of two National Leaders of Governance on the Board and Chair of an Outstanding primary school, together with an experienced chair of important KCC Committees in education and of an Outstanding Pupil Referral Unit.

Their role was made doubly difficult as, whilst the IEB is accountable to KCC for their legal responsibilities, Lilac Sky, a commercial provider of educational services, is responsible for the management of the school. However, the IEB is not allowed to  delegate its legal responsibility for the management of the budget, the curriculum, staffing, pay and performance management and the appointment of the headteacher and deputy headteacher. This begs the question: how on earth could such an experienced board allow the budget to go so woefully wrong that it has brought the school down? There are no signs of any strategies they introduced to improve the image of the school or to promote it, in order to give it a chance of survival.

The IEB has the powers to recommend closure to KCC, but it is explicitly forbidden to publish proposals for closure and yet the Consultation document states explicitly that it, in conjunction with KCC has launched the consultation on a proposal to discontinue (!) the school.

So what exactly has been the role of the IEB in trying to secure a sound basis for the future improvement of Furness School?

Conclusion

In a few weeks, KCC Members have to make a decision on whether to close Furness School or give it another chance to survive. The gross mismanagement, one might say negligence, that has brought to the school to its knees is not now the key issue, although the refusal of KCC officers to accept ANY accountability or responsibility for this state of affairs, or even to respond to reasonable questions put to try and understand how it came about, is utterly deplorable.

However, the question now is whether the school has a future? Certainly, if it is to work, somehow a solution has to be found to write off the current deficit, although if the school closes the £1.6 million is lost anyhow.

KCC’s Corporate Director of Education agrees with all working in the field that there is well- evidenced increase in demand for places for students with ASD. We are talking here of children with high functioning ASD, and in spite of the fudge in the Consultation document, these children are NOT appropriately placed in SEN Units, many having arrived at Furness after such placements have failed. Certainly, in the East of the county, the equivalent highly successful Laleham Gap School shows what can be done.

Given that the Lilac Sky ‘solution’ has proved a disaster, the pressing need is to come up with a management model that will work. There is an enormous amount of expertise in the county, and one of the tragedies of Furness is that when the fall happened in 2012, headteachers of Kent Special Schools offered their support to run the school, but this was foolishly spurned by KCC in favour of Lilac Sky. Let us hope that KCC is prepared to see if such a solution can be found this time round.

KCC claims that the biggest obstacle to any future success at Furness is its image amongst parents. The fact that neither KCC nor the IEB thought to address this is now history, but parents have repeatedly pointed out that a simple name change, as happens in so many other cases where there have been problems with a school’s reputation, would be a sensible start. KCC’s response at the parents’ meeting that re-branding could be considered if the school was allowed to remain open, was hardly a ringing endorsement of the idea, but in reality it is an essential pre-requisite of success. There is so much more that can be done if the school's image is to be moved forward successfully; it merely requires thinking about!

The present generation of Furness students, and many future generations of high functioning ASD children in West Kent have been failed by KCC, its IEB, and Lilac Sky. It is still not too late to reverse the proposal to close the school, but it requires courage to admit mistakes, as well as making a short term investment for long term gains. Surely, Kent County Council Members who have already been misled by a false prospectus to redesignate the school, will not allow Furness to be closed less than a year after it was re-opened as a school for the increasing numbers of high functioning ASD children. These children need a future. To coin a phrase, the future can be bright – if it is not Lilac!

Last modified on Monday, 23 March 2015 14:52

1 comment

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 17 March 2015 16:16 posted by jo

    My son has been permanently excluded from mainstream Meopham secondary school. He has a statement, with a diagnosis of ASD and ADHD. Where are these children supposed to learn? If the mainstream schools don't want to support these children,and they are thinking of closing furness,there's going to be a lot of vulnerable children left with no education, like my child!! PETER: Whilst we don't know the circumstances of this exclusion, it is the nightmare of so many parents of ASD statemented children, although some at Furness will have already lived it and then had a lifeline thrown to them. If Furness is closed, then some of them will once again become vulnerable to exclusion without the specialist care that Furness offers and is clearly highly valued by those who benefit. My heart goes out to Jo and her son.

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