Special Educational Needs: Wiltshire

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:41 pm on 6th March 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 6:41 pm, 6th March 2019

I of course agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was once a governor at a special school, before I was elected. If I reflect on the provision then and the provision now, I am quite clear that matters have improved, but that does not mean to say that we should be complacent. What the hon. Gentleman said is correct: we need to ensure that every child has the ability to reach his or her potential. That is as true of a mainstream child who is going to become a doctor or a lawyer—or even a politician—as it is for a child at a special needs school whose horizons, in a classic sense, are necessarily going to be rather more limited. They are equally important and their potential needs to be maximised.

The proposition before the council is that it closes two schools and builds a big school on the site of a third one. That would be a very big school by SEN standards, and many of us have concerns about that, because this particular subset of the school population undoubtedly benefits from a provision that is more intimate than perhaps would be necessary for their mainstream compatriots. That would necessarily not be the case were this big school to be created in place of the ones it would replace. The council refers to the big school as a centre of excellence, but my contention is that we already have a centre of excellence in my constituency—it is called Larkrise School.

The claim is made that Larkrise is bursting at the seams and that its facilities and equipment are insufficient, but there is more to a school than bricks and mortar, and there is more to a special school than hoists. The school community understands that, which is why it is so opposed to the local authority’s prescription. It is clear that, being strapped for cash, the council has to balance the books. Rightly, it worries about the financial deficits that have been projected for each of the special educational needs schools, but deficits are projected at several mainstream schools, too, and nobody is suggesting that the solution is to close them.

The county’s financial position is not helped by its having to place 300 special educational needs pupils outside Wiltshire because of the long-standing insufficiency of in-county provision. Those of us who represent seats in Wiltshire will be well used to people attending our advice surgeries to discuss that. The council wants to remedy this out-of-county placement situation by creating a new school with 350 places serving the north of the county. Although the way that the numbers are presented in the consultation documents makes comparison very difficult, 350 places seems inadequate to cope with the planned closures, the out-of-county placements and the growth that is projected given local population increases, housing demand, and the recently announced moves of the residue of the British Army in Germany largely to Wiltshire and the need to accommodate them. Even by its own arithmetic, the council appears to be set on under-provision. That means that out-of-county provision is bound to continue, that projected spend on the new school will be greatly exceeded, or that the new school will very quickly become overcrowded, or, more likely, a combination of all three.

The plans anticipate no sixth form. Instead reliance will be placed on the county’s further education college, Wiltshire College, for 16-19 provision, together with a vaguely defined private provision. No further details are given. For example, we do not know how many days a week pupils aged 16 to 19 will have.

All this is of great concern as SEN pupils across the UK have been let down historically in our system in the transition from school to adulthood—from school to life as supported young people in the community. Provision for 16 to 19 is absolutely crucial in this transition. Wiltshire Council’s consultation document asserts that the new centre of excellence will be able to provide what is called

“outreach capacity to support mainstream schools.”

It is not clear what is meant by that. On the face of it, there is a risk that resource will be diverted from the severe and profound to the milder end of the SEN spectrum. That is surely not what is intended. If it is, it needs to be stated in plain terms. The perception is not helped by the confusing terminology used in the text and the apparent misunderstanding of which schools currently offer what, in what is admittedly a complex and overlapping needs mix. Response to the consultation has rightly honed in on that.

Last month, I took part in a march in Trowbridge in support of the threatened schools. Predictably, there were children, parents and teachers, but what struck me was the number of ordinary citizens with no direct link to the school. The orthodoxy is that society wants people with disabilities of the kind that special schools deal with to be hidden away. The orthodoxy is that society is embarrassed by them and that they make it feel uncomfortable. Well, that may be the orthodoxy but it is not true in Trowbridge. Larkrise has a very special ethos. It does not believe in the hiding away of kids with the most profound difficulties. Its students are part of the local scene, out and about in the community. Nobody gawps at them, looks away or crosses the road, because they are an accepted and expected part of the community. They are recognised, welcomed, and helped in the shops, and that does not happen by accident.

We must not hide special needs children away in remote large, impersonal facilities, miles from their homes and communities. That is the very opposite of inclusion. It is segregation. Now I know that that is not the intent of the council, but it would be the consequence of its plans as drafted. Mobility today means that, like as not, children in mainstream schools will make their adult lives away from the towns in which they grew up, but children with special educational needs are much more likely to remain. Where they are is where they will be. Larkrise understands that, which is why its staff, ably led by headteacher Phil Cook, have put so much effort into local involvement and ensuring that their children are integrated in the community. I know that a similar situation applies at St Nicholas.

It is not surprising that, in its latest report, Ofsted rated Larkrise as “good”. It is surprising that the council believes that shutting this good school in Wiltshire’s county town should be part of its plans for raising standards. That is particularly so, as the council’s own task group stated that

“it would not be appropriate to combine all three schools into one site”,

and its “School Places Strategy” document says that children are best educated at the heart of the community—absolutely.

Over the year, parents with statemented children, and now children with educational health and care plans, have been to see me in my advice surgery. Invariably, the issue is not directly about care or education, but about transport.