Education bosses 'firefighting' as Northants runs out of special school places

Planned free schools have not been built as hoped.Planned free schools have not been built as hoped.
Planned free schools have not been built as hoped.
The officer in charge of planning places says a 'perfect storm' is brewing

Education chiefs in Northamptonshire have warned there is a ‘perfect storm’ brewing as the number of special educational needs school places have run out, but demand is at ‘unprecedented levels’.

School planners are sending children to other counties for teaching, asking existing special schools to squeeze in extra classes and now considering setting up special school type environments in mainstream schools, to give all of the county’s children the education they need.

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The local education authority’s strategic SEND manager Gwyn Botterill said the situation cannot go on for much longer and delays in free schools planned for the county have exacerbated the problem and created ‘a perfect storm’.

The Friar East special school planned for Rushden was supposed to open two years ago, but will not open now until September next year. The reason behind this has been the failure to secure land.

The Red Kite Special Academy was built in Corby but it is already at capacity.

Since 2014, 700 additional special school places have been created in Northants but the local education authority says the same number is needed again. The £600m schools budget for last year was £3.7m overspent in the high needs budget, largely due to the high cost out of county places.

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Gwynee Botterill told a virtual meeting of the schools forum on Tuesday that rather than the planned approach the department that deals with SEN places is now ‘firefighting’.

She said: “In working with our special school colleagues, a number have come foward and made offers of increasing and adding a class where they can. Obviously that is not easy as most are at capacity physically. There is the opportunity for a number of places, but that is not going to meet demand.”

She said the authority’s Increase in Capacity project had been put on hold while immediate shortages are dealt with.

She said: “The problem now is we are back to firefighting because of the number who require a placement now. The planning side and longer term is on hold while we try to and resolve an immediacy of pressure on places.”

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The council is looking to source a site for a new free school bid.

Mrs Botterill said there are 140 children due to start reception in September who need a special school place – which is unprecedented. Since they were introduced by the government five years ago there has been an ‘exponential increase’ in Educational and Health Care Plans (EHCP) in Northamptonshire. EHCPs are assessments which work out what special educational needs a child has.

Northamptonshire has a higher rate than neighbouring counties and Gwyn Botterill said investigations were taking place to find out why. According to a council report from September

requests for assessment in Northants have risen from from 456 in 2014/15 to 1,091 in 2018/19. The number of EHC Plans maintained has risen from 3,599 in August 2014 to 4,322 in August 2019.

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Chairman of the Schools Forum Joanne Sanchez asked whether the rising demand for special school places could be due to the relatively low amounts that mainstream schools receive per pupil, therefore leading schools to feel they cannot meet the child’s learning needs.

The SEND strategic manager agreed that could be one of the reasons.

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