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Saturday, 16 March 2019 06:27

Two new Special Schools for Kent in Sittingbourne and Sheppey

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Kent County Council has been awarded one of 39 new Special Schools to be opened across the country, following a bid to government. This will be built on the Isle of Sheppey, on land adjacent to the new Halfway Houses Primary School site,  and is planned to focus on children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health Needs aged 11-16. Under current regulations KCC will now need to set up a tendering process to select a Sponsor from an existing academy chain to run the new school. As explained below, this can be a drawn out and uncertain process, with the opening date not yet fixed.

This follows approval in January for the Aspire School, Sittingbourne a new Free School for children with autism or speech and language difficulties to be run by Grove Park Academies Trust, currently comprising Grove Park Primary School. It will be built on council land not far from Grove Park, both schools in Bobbing. The Aspire School came into existence because of the vision of parents as long ago as 2013. The original vision was for high functioning autistic children aged 4 -16, although final details have not yet been settled, and it is now looking likely to be for primary aged children, opening at the earliest in September 2020.

A major problem in the establishment of new schools is that KCC has lost control and is reliant on persuading government to approve a Free School which has to attract a sponsor and site. Separately, organisations such as parent groups and churches can come forward with proposals such as with the Aspire Group above, although this appears to have yielded oversight to the Grove Park Academy Trust to get its plan through.

Sheppey Special School
The name of this school will no doubt be determined by the sponsor establishment, although two new Kent secondary Free Schools have faltered for lack of appropriate sponsorship, and other sponsors for the Goodwin Academy and schools run by Lilac Sky have proved utterly unsuitable.

The Press Release by KCC gives Roger Gough, Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Education, defining the role of the school as: providing for children requiring a specialist placement for social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs with Autism spectrum condition or communication and interaction difficulties’. He continues: ‘there is currently no special school on the Isle of Sheppey, meaning a significant number of pupils with SEN are required to travel substantial distances, off the Island, to the nearest suitable provision. The new school will allow them to access suitable provision within their local community, enhancing their opportunities to develop social links and become more independent’.

It would appear that SEMH is the prime condition to be supported, the addition of ASD and related conditions being a possible add on.  At present, according to Kent Online, The Department for Education has not settled the total finance available, which may define the number of pupils and the conditions the school can support.

KCC has now set up a competition to find a suitable Sponsor, but until this is settled, a date for resolving the outstanding issues and completion of construction will not be known. Do not expect it before 2021, and in the experience of other new Free Schools across the county, 2022 or later!

Currently, all children on Sheppey with Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) who cannot be catered for at Oasis Isle of Sheppey Academy (OISA) leave the island to be educated elsewhere, 70 of these travelling to Bower Grove school in Maidstone, others fanning out across the county where there is capacity.  

I was challenged by Gordon Henderson, MP for Swale, on my view expressed on Radio Kent, that local residents would not have confidence if the new school were sponsored by the struggling Oasis Isle of Sheppey Academy, but I believe this would be a retrograde step. Unfortunately, as only one of Kent’s 22 Special Schools is an academy, the likelihood is that the sponsor will be an academy chain without SEN experience at this level, such is the system that operates.

Aspire School
After years of campaigning and two rejections by the Department for Education, this primary free school was approved by government in September 2016, with hopes it would open the following year. It is now likely to open in 2020, with a capacity of 168 children, through an intake of 16 children in two classes in each year catering for ages 4 -11, and run by the Grove Park Academy Trust, which currently comprises just Grove Park Primary School. It will cater for  children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or other severe  speech and language difficulties. The original plan for it to be provision for high functioning ASD to support the two other such schools in the far east and west of the county at Laleham Gap School, Margate, and Broomhill Bank North Annex, Hextable, appears to have vanished.

Planning permission for the school was finally granted in January 2019.

Read 90 times Last modified on Saturday, 16 March 2019 06:35

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