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Monday, 20 July 2020 11:25

35 New Government Free Special Schools Announced

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Update: KCC has confirmed the new special school on the Isle of Sheppey is one of the 35, planned for completion in 2022. Further article here

The day after I published my recent article on EHCPs the government has announced that it is setting up 35 new special free schools (the Free School is the current model for delivering any new state school). Three of these will be in the South East of England, specialising in Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Social, Emotional and Mental Health Needs (SEMH), so one may be in Kent or Medway.

The plan is for each of them to be up and running by September 2022 onwards, the caveat acknowledging that most new schools opened in recent years are one or more years overdue.

Any new Kent school will join the two new Kent Free Special Schools opening in September. These are the Aspire School in Sittingbourne, for primary aged children with ASD, and Snowfields Academy, Bearsted, Maidstone, for secondary ASD children. Update: the 35 schools include the now confirmed new secondary Free Special School planned to open on the Isle of Sheppey in 2022, catering for secondary pupils with SEMH and ASD.

In what is presumably an error, the government announcement has now been changed to show Four new schools in the South East, rather than the original figure of three. he announcement also includes two alternative provision free schools in the West Midlands. Alternative Provision is what used to be called a Pupil Referral Unit,  for children who have been or are at risk of being excluded from mainstream education.

The announcement excitedly informs us that: ‘Staffed by specially trained teachers, the 35 new special free schools are expected to (‘open’ omitted) from September 2022 onwards and will give pupils with complex needs access to equipment that supports their individual needs such as sensory equipment and communication aids’. However, these are surely minimum expectations for any current special school, although one of the trumpeted virtues of free schools is that they are not required to employ qualified teachers! They ‘will help drive up standards in special education, providing support and teaching for pupils with complex needs such as autism, severe learning difficulties or mental health conditions.’ However, as my EHCP article shows, Kent’s Special Schools are already performing way above local and national standards according to Ofsted, so quite some challenge to outdo this. Special schools don’t normally compete for pupils, being area and speciality based so it is doubly difficult to see how the driving up process would work. 

Medway state Special schools if anything, perform even more strongly, as briefly reported here,  although the story of the Inspire Special Free School in Chatham is a salutary one. Two years after opening in 2014, it was placed in Special Measures, the Report beginning: ‘Leadership at all levels is inadequate’ before going on to take the school apart. Now under new management with its original name buried, the latest Ofsted assessment is Good but how many vulnerable children were failed in the meantime? In case one should think that such troubles are only teething problems, Kent’s first Free School, the Tiger Primary School in Maidstone, has recently had its Ofsted grade decline to Requires Improvement, for the second time out of three inspections.

Another specific caution from the government announcement is ‘The new schools will be open to some of the most vulnerable children in the country – including those with Education, Health and Care Plans’. 'Including' surely suggests that, unlike existing Special Schools, the EHCP may not be compulsory, so how will such children be selected, or will they simply be allowed to fill up?

The 'from 2022' also needs to be treated with caution. No new school in Kent or Medway has opened on time in recent years, several being years late - the Aspire School was first proposed in 2013 as a high functioning ASD school to be set up by parents. Seven years later, it is to be a traditional Special Schoool for pupils with ASD, the 'high functioning' long gone when it opens in September. The Maidstone School of Science and Technology, sponsored by VIAT, also opening in September was originally planned for opening in 2017 as discussed here, which looks at two other proposals that fell by the wayside in Thanet (now resurrected) and Tunbridge Wells, for lack of an appropriate sponsor. There are plenty of other examples of delay in these pages. 

Last modified on Tuesday, 21 July 2020 23:16

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