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