CONSIDERABLY UPDATED WITH CORRECTIONS ARISING FROM FEEDBACK: 10TH FEBRUARY
Kent County Council has announced a Consultation on the closure of Furness School in Hextable. This is a scandal at the conclusion of four years of mismanagement by KCC, ending with a consultation that is a classic in misdirection. I wrote a previous article in 2012 entitled “Is this the most damning Kent OFSTED Report ever? Furness School”, which has set the scene for this denouement three years later.
Much of KCC’s argument for closure is false, based on two false premises, firstly that pupil numbers are low and getting lower, and secondly that education standards are low and not improving, as evidenced by the poor OFSTED Reports.
The school was redesignated to provide for high functioning Autistic Spectrum Disorder children (ASD) last September, replacing Behavioural, Emotional and Social Disorder (BESD). This year, ASD numbers are already 22 including an unspecified number of high functioning children (rather an important detail I would have thought), with BESD just 8, and new admissions discouraged or prohibited for much of the second half of 2012 for two years. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the trend in ASD is upwards, whilst BESD numbers would soon become insignificant.
All published OFSTED Reports refer to the now vanishing BESD group in the school, and in any case, show a strong upward trend in quality, which KCC has failed to notice! The most recent report of December 2013 records that: “the principal has led the continuing, and at times dramatic, improvement of the school with unwavering determination. In this, she is supported by a strong senior leadership team and increasingly effective middle leaders”.
Just seven months ago, KCC published its proposal for the new designation, which came about in September, which actually beggars belief in failing to identify ANY of the issues they now claim are central to the closure proposal. If the claims were true (which they are not), this would be gross negligence at a minimum.
As a consequence of the proposal, the families of vulnerable children can see their education and life chances severely damaged as they are destabilised (over half of them for the second time in a year), money poured down the drain and SEN policy casually cast aside or misrepresented, accompanied by KCC attempts to show this is all to their benefit.
I find it difficult to know where to start to pick my way through the complexities that have led to the KCC decision to close the school, but the article that follows attempts to cast the story in a historical perspective……
Campaign to halt closure
Parents have now set up a facebook page, a website and an e-petition to try and save the school, containing much comment on the dreadful situation in which parents now find themselves. KentAdvice is a specialist website, so over 600 hits (along with the large number of email and RSS subscribers) in the first day of publishing this article is exceptional, reflecting the interest in this issue.
My previous article explored the situation after the headteacher of the school in 2012 was removed by the then West Kent Education Officer, subsequently Kent’s Principal Primary School Improvement Officer. The school, which was then for residential and day children with a capacity of 60 children, had been expanded beyond its natural limit to take another 30 of the most disturbed children in the county, a fatal error for the school. I am told by a member of staff at the time that the new children were admitted "at speed" without consideration for the appropriateness of their placement. The then headteacher, Mr Van Der Watt, a strong personality, highly respected by the student and staff found this a challenge too far and was removed without KCC making suitable arrangements to maintain the school. I have now also been told by several separate sources, that those placed in charge of the school at this time, could not cope and spent much of their time holed up in the headteacher's office, pretending to do adminstration. The subsequent OFSTED Inspection not surprisingly found the student body in revolt as they had lost their moral compass, and the Report makes grim reading.
KCC having created the failure, then called in Lilac Sky Schools, a favoured management and academy trust, to dig themselves out of the hole they had created. An FOI I submitted in 2013 established that KCC had paid Lilac Sky £574,650 in the following 18 months as a School Improvement Partner, to support the school and its 34 students then on roll, a fall of 56 or two thirds since the previous headteacher left. Hardly a success indicator!
Somewhere along the line, this arrangement was upped with Lilac Sky taking over the management of the school on a three year contract, presumably finishing after the end of this school year. OFSTED Monitoring Inspections unsurprisingly show this worked well for the much small number of students remaining in the school, especially as Lilac Sky massively increased the support (and associated costs) provided for the school.
With Lilac Sky refusing to accept new students in September 2012 or any mid-year admissions, KCC placement officers knowing the school would soon cease BESD, and some parents having removed their children from the school, it is totally unsurprising that admissions fell virtually to zero, total roll remaining low. Currently, there are just 8 BESD students in the school, six of them in Year 11. Nevertheless, in September 2014, with 22 ASD children, the roll almost balanced that of 2013, with surely a clear expectation that numbers would rise sharply, as the school threw off its previous poor reputation for BESD.
KCC Plans for the new designation
It was as recently as 26 June 2014, updated August, that KCC published its proposal for Furness to become a new High Functioning ASD specialist school, having been approved by KCC's Education and Young People's Services Cabinet Committee that day, along with an Equal Opportunities Impact Assessment (same link). These are an astonishing read, in complete contrast to the proposal to close, just seven months later, and full of high ambitions for the school and Kent's SEN provision. The 204-15 finances will have been known, but in the revenue section, no problems whatever are even hinted at, although the 2013/4 deficit of £868,578 would have been known, as would the projected deficit of over £1.5 million for 2014/15. A note on human resources states explicitly that there will be no changes to staff numbers. It records that KCC has agreed to purchase 50 places at the school, although final numbers for September 2014, will have been known by that date. It refers to the situation at Laleham Gap (see below), and the benefit of offering a similar provision at Furness with a consequent reduction in travel (and travel costs!).
What I cannot find here or anywhere else, any reference to the alleged desire of parents to have their children educated in mainstream schools; neither does this appear in the overarching Commissioning Plan for Schools 2015-19, and I challenge KCC to provide the evidence for this, presumably collected since June.
In fact, it appears that those responsible for preparing the Closure Consultation document cannot have read or understood the earlier proposal, so different in asserted fact and philosophy they both are.
Current provision for high level ASD
That there is a pressing need for more provision for high functioning ASD in Kent is shown by current provision, exclusively at Laleham Gap School in Margate, for 170 children aged 4-16, both day and residential. It is always full, and I am regularly contacted by parents keen to get their children accepted. The problem is that these sought after places are in the far East of the county, inaccessible to children from much of Kent, which is why the new provision at Furness was seen as an ideal balance for West and North Kent pupils, as confirmed in the redesignation proposal. It therefore remains astonishing that it is being scrapped even before children have been at the school for one year. There are currently 247 ASD pupils attending schools outside Kent.
Current provision for BESD
There is a shortage of BESD places in special schools in the area and county, with KCC having to take up 266 places in other Local Authorities. These will be mainly residential at enormous cost, £150,000 per annum not being unusual, although Furness would be much cheaper. Nevertheless, KCC made the decision to remove provision from Furness and replace the designation with high functioning Autistic Spectrum (ASD) from September 2014, although originally allowing the BESD children to finish their courses.
Reasons for Closure
The reasons put forward by KCC are fourfold:
Firstly, the poor performance at OFSTED, although the school is now on the up, as shown by the December 2013 Report, and in any case that performance is completely irrelevant to the new ASD intake that requires a very different type of curriculum and teaching. It is unclear if Lilac Sky has any experience in provision for high functioning ASD, but this should not have been a reason for closure, rather to look at other possible providers.
2) Parental Choice
Secondly, that parents are looking to such provision in mainstream rather than special schools. Laleham Gap, and the redesignation proposal show this assertion to be untrue. In any case, where is the evidence, surely a crucial element of any decision to close, which ought to have been provided in the consultation document? My own experience in 2010 when I exposed the scandal of KCC Officers trying to phase out all SEN Units, without the knowledge of Members, has taught me to be very wary of such unsupported claims. In that case, placement officers were advising parents there was no point in applying to Units as they were to close, and then senior officers claimed that the fall in applications showed Units were unpopular. I have talked with enough ASD parents to know that many live with the constant fear that their statemented children will be excluded for behavioural reasons from units or mainstream schools; an example being the Furness parent who talked on Radio Kent about her child's experiences before Furness and her fears for the future. I have checked my beliefs with experts working in the field and they concur.
I am certainly puzzled, to say the least that, parental opinion is reported to have swung so much against special schools in the twelve months since the school was opened. I request that the survey evidence for this sudden and astonishing shift of opinion be made publicly available to inform the decision.
There is no reference to the East/West inequality in the Equality Impact Assessment, leading to discrimination against disabled children in the West of the county now that the provision currently in place is to close, and so the proposal should fail on this factor alone!
3) Pupil numbers
Thirdly, the number of pupils in the school is decreasing: From the Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) in the Consultation: “The number of young people entering the school each year is very small and these low numbers are not expected to increase within a reasonable timeframe. More and more schools are establishing specialist resource based provisions resulting in appropriate provision being provided in mainstream schools. This means that the number of pupils on roll at the school is diminishing”. This is quite simply untrue on three counts. The number of ASD pupils in this ASD designated school was 22 in September 2014 so we could have expected further increases annually until the school was full. The sole reason it is not much higher is the refusal of Lila Sky, aided and abetted by KCC to prohibit or discourage admissions from mid 2012. This is NOT lack of popualrity. No BESD pupils have left or chosen not to go to Furness because of transferring to specialist resource based provision in mainstream schools (the posh name for SEN Units). Quite simply, there are none currently established in Kent, according to the KCCC Commissioning Plan for Kent, 2015-2019, although two are to be set up in September.
Fourthly, the budget deficit is unsustainable and irrecoverable. For 2013/4 the year end deficit rocketed from £30,590 to £868,568, which I agree is unacceptable, especially given the forecast for the current financial year is £1,631,520. However, elements of this are certainly exceptional despite KCC claims.
a) The cost of residential accommodation must be a considerable proportion of this, especially as Mr Leeson, Director Education, in a radio interview, claimed there were just 4 residential children. According to OFSTED “Residential provision is provided by two teams of motivated staff who are managed effectively by two experienced house managers” a structure that is clearly wholly uneconomic for the low and vanishing numbers and would need to go if there is no evidence of future demand.
b) The second major financial problem is that KCC has surrendered control of the school to Lilac Sky who have invested considerable sums of money in managing the school, with a range of senior staff, including those for residential staff and support from the Trust, all of which have to be paid for, all of which have of course improved standards, which is to be welcomed. It appears that costs are out of control, and presumably Lilac Sky have no particular interest in curtailing these. The questions remains, which KCC officer was responsible for overseeing this expenditure, were warnings given when it was clear the budget was out of control (the problem wasn’t caused by falling numbers throughout the year!), and what action was taken to rein it back in? No other Kent school would be allowed to get into this mess in one year (apart from Chaucer which went the same way!). It would of course have been very helpful to see the various elements of the budget in the Consultation to see what has caused the ballooning deficit, but these might be embarrassing.
d) There is no long term financial issue identified in the redesignation proposal, written when the 2013/14 figures were available and those for 2014/15 could be projected.
e) Once again, to bolster the financial argument, KCC falsely claims that numbers are falling, any lack of increase being due to Lilac Sky and KCC decisions not to admit new pupils!.
I presume that the vast debt run up by the school will have to be paid for out of the Direct Schools Grant, i.e. fall as a cost on all other county schools.
Equality Impact Assessment
This legally binding document contains crucial errors of fact about numbers entering the school and the trend of pupil roll. It fails to identify the discrimination towards Kent ASD children other than in the East of the county now being introduced by the closure of the school. It claims a parental view that parents of high functioning ASD children would prefer a mainstream unit that has in any case not yet been opened, without any evidence. The law requires that: “If any negative or adverse impacts amount to unlawful discrimination, they must be removed”. These proposed actions are indeed discrimination against such children!
KCC’s solution to the removal of the ASD provision is to set up a new Unit attached to Hugh Christie School in Tonbridge, and to associate it with new provision planned for Wilmington. It is certainly unfortunate for the poor parents who are now faced with finding a new school having no doubt been delighted to find a specialist high functioning ASD school, that there are no details available at this critical time of the nature of that provision or whether it will cater for their children’s particular needs.
Lilac Sky's involvement has been very good for the children who have been at Furness ever since they first became involved with the school. As the company currently says on its website: "The school has now reopened and been judged by the OFSTED Inspection of 2013, to be both ‘safe’ and ‘stable’ and, best of all, feels like a ‘proper school’ again - according to both staff and students. The 2013 inspection for Lilac Sky Schools saw Furness School out of ‘Special Measures’ and moved up to ‘Requires Improvement’ overall, but with Lilac Sky’s ‘ Leadership and Management’, rated as ‘Good’. OFSTED also noted that much of the teaching was now ‘Good,’ while parents spoke ‘warmly of the support they and their children received from the school’". It would appear that Lilac Sky is fully committed to the school, otherwise why stress the 'stable', although one wonders at what cost to the KCC budget. Certainly the consultation states: "In agreement with the IEB, KCC re-designated the school to ASD and looked to facilitate conversion to academy status through Lilac Sky. However due to parental choice and the school’s significant budget difficulties, both solutions have proved unsuccessful". I presume that the first solution was the conversion to ASD designation which, contrary to the KCC assertion looks as if it will be highly successful, given the current take up of ASD places through positive parental choice in spite of the dampening or prohibition of new admissions. I have explored the significant budget difficulties above, which have arisen primarily because of the temporary fall in pupil numbers which should be reversed with a proper admission policy, the uneconomic investment in residential accommodation which could be resolved, and the failure of KCC budgetary control almost certainly exacerbated by Lilac Sky expenditure on a model the county could not afford. All of these are reversible, but it would appear that Lilac Sky was unwilling to take on these financial issues and convert to an academy. Why take a risk now and accept full responsibility for the school's finances through the academy model, when Furness has probably been a very profitable enterprise up until the present? Otherwise, why walk away from the very rosy picture outlined on the company website, and in the redesignation proposal?
In any case, having blamed one major reason for the closure on the poor OFSTED record of the school, why would KCC wish to continue its collaboration with Lilac Sky, the company that oversaw this alleged poor performance?
In most cases where a school is proposed for closure, the headteacher becomes a focus in the debate, often being prepared to fight for "their" school. This will not happen here, as the headteacher is employed by Lilac Sky, who are committed to pulling out.
The consultation refers to the buildings as "a mixture of an old manor house forming the main part of the school, surrounded by newer outbuildings and residential apartments". It is unfortunate that this is rubbish, confirming the falsehoods underpinning the consultation document. In fact, the premises were built in 1882 as part of the Farningham Homes, as a residential school called the Home for Orphan Boys. It was a purpose built school, and in case anyone is in doubt, you will find the full plans of the school at the time of its opening here, together with a brief history showing its development to the current status. Is it deliberate or unfortunate the Council has forgotten to mention the £3.5 million, 2 story extension, with 2 fully equipped science labs, and an Art room/ studio, plus other classrooms and offices, dismissing the project as outbuildings! At this time the residential facilities were also improved to the highest standard, all pupils having access to their own bathroom and in most cases an ensuite! The facilities were further extended in 2011 by a brand new Food tech building (again of the highest specification). The school is situated on a healthy 4.41 hectares fully owned by Kent County Council. The Consultation document gives no clue as to future plans for the site, although these may have a significant bearing on the decision. The site could of course be designated by government to be the base for a residential Free School; I would have thought the premises would be ideal for this, but it would not yield a capital return for KCC. Alternatively, it could become prime development land after August this year which would yield a considerable financial return, especially with the new Paramount Park sure to see land values shoot up in the near future. There was a similar discussion by those involved, including parents, about the fate of the extensive land of the Chaucer Technology School that become vacant at the same time, with some parents convinced this was a factor in the closure, but again no proposal has been put forward yet.
The above analysis is my interpretation of the official documents published by KCC and OFSTED, together with my local knowledge, and input from former staff and parents. I believe it shows a shocking betrayal of the families caught up in a situation in which they were deliberately misled into moving to a newly designated school that offered much but has been ruined by those in authority who bear full responsibility for the tragedy.
I have read many consultation documents in my time, and can say unequivocally that this appears the worst, the most superficial and misleading consultation I have come across.
I have now written formally to KCC asking to see the evidence for the assertion 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".
As to whether parents who respond to the Consultation can have any hope of forcing a change, this is most unlikely to happen. On Radio Kent last week, Mr Leeson, Director of Education, made absolutely clear he considered the arguments were overwhelming, "but of course someone could come up with something". I will be submitting a version of this article as evidence in time, when I have had the opportunity to be corrected on any of it. So please feel free to point out any errors or omissions, as I would like it to be as convincing as possible
Of course, as with most of these consultations, there is a self-fulfilling element about them as parents seek to find a safer haven and many will inevitably have either transferred or be in the process of doing so by the time the Consultation is ended.