The creation of new centres of excellence for children with special educational needs is the goal of the councillor now responsible for schools.
Coun Wayne Daley, the new cabinet member for children’s services in the Conservative administration at County Hall, set out his vision for special educational needs (SEN) in an interview last week.
“There are some real challenges,” he said. “One hundred and thirty-one students are educated outside the county because we simply don’t have the spaces and that was one of the first priorities I looked at to see what we could do.
“For some young people, being educated outside the county is the right thing to do because of very specialist needs, but for the vast majority, the logistics, transport and stress is not acceptable.
“I have asked Andy Johnson (the county’s director of education) to look at a plan to create some centres of excellence – one for the north, for the central belt, for the south-east and into the west as well.
“We have already made substantial investment – £3.5million – for the Priory in Hexham and in Ashington to create 83 new spaces, which will come on stream in 2018.
“Our model shows that we are going to have a need for another 150 places over the next couple of years and we really need to start looking at centres of excellence, not sending young people out of county.
“Some of it might be building on existing facilities – in Ashington, we have a created an annexe – but the other thing is to look at our property portfolio and see about new provision. Those places need to reflect the communities they are in.”
In Northumberland, there are 7,707 children eligible for SEN support, at a rate which is above the national average.
Many are educated in mainstream schools, but 704 go to special schools – up from 491 in 2008. In terms of the needs, the top three are autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – 267 young people; social and emotional mental-health problems – 240; and a combination of the two – 44.
Coun Daley said: “There’s an increasing number of young people requiring SEN provision, so there’s real pressure on numbers, which is reflected in 131 having to be educated outside the county.
“We have identified some ways of immediately alleviating some of that pressure, but the long-term plan is developing the centres of excellence.
“As a local authority, we need to work very closely with parents to make sure the service is fit for purpose.”
Concerns over secondary SEN options
A concerned parent has questioned the lack of schools in Northumberland that can accommodate students with special educational needs (SEN) within a mainstream secondary setting.
Katie Cairns, from Alnwick, who has worked in schools in Northumberland for almost 15 years, has written to Andy Johnson, the county’s director of education, to voice her concerns, which relate to options for children as they get older.
Her original plan was to send her son to St Mary’s CofE Middle School in Belford until Year 8, which at least allowed an extra two years in a smaller school. “I believe up until recently this was the preferred option of many parents of children with special needs,” she said.
“Sadly, due to the debacle of allowing Alnwick to go to a two-tier system, this is no longer an option.
“Regardless of my personal feelings with regards to the high school’s track record on dealing with these children, the size of the building and classes alone ensure these children do not get the education they deserve.
“Regardless of intervention put in place, there is no avoiding the issues that come from the sheer enormity of the school.
“I have spoken to many parents in the area so I know this is a widespread issue. I am not alone in my concerns. Many of my colleagues have also expressed concerns about how these children will cope.
“It used to be said that every child matters. It seems in Northumberland, children only matter if they don’t have additional needs or they have parents with means.”
A Northumberland County Council spokeswoman said: “Providing for children with special educational needs and disabilities is a high priority for the council and we have made significant improvements in this area in recent times. We have nine special schools in the county and all have been judged to be good or outstanding by Ofsted.
“We provide support to schools with SEN pupils through our school improvement partnering programme and have a wide range of specialist support available – including for educational psychology, hearing and visual impairment, autism and behaviour, and literacy and communication.
“With the help of this support for SEN pupils, there is an improving trend of pupils reaching expected levels of attainment at the end of early years and also at the end of Key Stage 2 – both above the national average.
“We are also meeting targets for completing education and healthcare plans and transfer reviews within timescale – meaning that young people are having their needs assessed promptly.
“Funding is undoubtedly a challenge for the service, but it will remain a high priority for the council going forward and we will strive to make as many places as possible available for SEN pupils in the future.”
Authority misses deadline on statements
Northumberland County Council is among a number of local authorities across the country which missed a key deadline for children with special educational needs (SEN) as they prepare to move into secondary school this September.
Figures obtained under Freedom of Information by specialist education lawyers Simpson Millar show how more than 100 councils failed to meet the statutory deadline of February 15 for issuing final transition statements, known as EHCPs, to thousands of SEN children.
Nationwide, 2,405 children were left waiting for their plans, despite the fact that local authorities have a legal duty to deliver it by February 15 – in time for parents to help their children make the move, or appeal against the contents of it to a specialist tribunal.
Across the country, 62 councils said they had failed to issue final transition EHCPs to 10 or more children, with 103 overall reporting that at least some plans had not been finalised by the deadline. By comparison, 47 councils were able to complete every single plan on time.
In the North East, there are currently more than 14,500 children and young people between the ages of 0 and 25 with an EHCP. 525 of those are starting secondary school this September and 389 of those received their transition plan on time.
Northumberland County Council missed the statutory deadline for more than 10 children alongside three other North-East councils – Sunderland, South Tyneside and Stockton-on-Tees.
Education solicitor Samantha Hale, from Simpson Millar, said: “Parents of children with SEN are understandably often anxious about school changes and their opportunity to review and challenge the provision set out in these plans is severely hampered if they are not provided on time. This is a statutory deadline, put in place to ensure a sensible and managed transition for children who otherwise might find the whole thing very stressful.
“Practically and emotionally, this is a real worry.”