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Thursday, 09 April 2015 19:21

Furness School: The Recommendation

The consultation about the proposed closure of Furness School has now concluded, and the proposal to be considered by the Education and Young People’s Services Cabinet Committee on April 15th is as follows:
"To receive a report from the Corporate Director for Education and Young People’s Services, to consider and endorse or make recommendations to the Cabinet Member for Education and Health Reform on the proposed decision to issue a public notice to discontinue Furness School and, subject to no objections not already considered, implement the proposal to close the School with effect from 31 August 2015 and initiate the statutory consultation proposal process to establish a satellite provision of Broomhill Bank School on the Furness site from 1 September 2015”.
You will find full details of the Cabinet Committee meeting here, with additional papers relating to the consultation including a summary of Consultation comments. I am pleased that mine feature prominently! There will be a live webcast of the meeting from 10.a.m., and you will also be able to see a recording of it. If this  proposal is approved, it will then go to the Cabinet Member for a decision by 23rd April.

Broomhill Bank ......

is a KCC Special School in Tunbridge Wells, with the capacity and expertise to meet the needs and offer a curriculum appropriate to the High Functioning Autistic Spectrum children for whom Furness currently caters. The proposal makes clear that this proposal is strongly supported and will be underpinned by the Kent Association of Special Schools, an organisation that effectively promotes the needs of statemented children in Kent for whom a Special School is most appropriate.

I agree with the view in the proposal that
 “The benefit of these proposals would be to enable children with high functioning ASD on the current Furness roll to continue to access specialist provision and ensure that future cohorts of children with high functioning ASD continue to have access to specialist provision in line with need and parental preference”. 
It is further proposed that the necessary public consultation be undertaken to continue to provide  residential provision at the Furness site from September 2015.

In May 2012 Furness was a failed school after OFSTED rightly placed it in Special Measures.  The first Option to be proposed was that it became an Academy, the norm outcome for such schools. It was to be sponsored by the controversial Academy Trust, Lilac Sky, whose track record with mainstream is to say the least patchy, whilst Furness is their only experience of running Special Schools. They have recently been removed from sponsorship of Tabor Academy in Essex after it was placed in Special Measures and government then removed it from sponsorship of a new Free School in Chelmsford, the Trust's home town.

Option 2 was the closure proposed in January, with the children being scattered far and wide. Option 3 is the one proposed, above. There is no Option 4. 

However, the proposal document continues in its misrepresentation of the factors that led up to this debacle, and fails once again to answer the many questions that parents have asked over the consultation. It is clear that the mismanagement of Furness School by all those responsible is to be swept under the carpet, not even with the  usual ‘lessons will be learned’. No one will be held accountable.

I have written a number of articles exposing the level of mismanagement and false statements by the Council, including an open letter to the Director of Education, Mr Patrick Leeson, posing eleven key questions. His response was only able to cover three of these. I do not propose to repeat these issues, my most recent article covering events up to that point.   

Sadly, following my Open Letter, I was accused by KCC of making a 'completely unfounded allegation' in the letter, containing 'scurrilous remarks'. Although I have asked KCC to tell me what these allegation and scurrilous remarks were, I have had no response as indeed there are none! Do feel free to let me know if you can spot them if I am mistaken, as KCC cannot.

Although it is now history, there is a remarkable minute of the Interim Executive Board for Furness that has come to light. It was written on 3rd December 2014 and reads:
    Q: Was the LA satisfied with the progress made to manage the budget?
  A: Jackie Coleman (KCC School Support Manager) confirmed this was the case, helped by the additional pupil numbers.
   In other words the Interim Executive  Board, which appears to have been generally inadequate for the task it accepted, was being happily reassured by KCC that there was no problem with managing the budget, even though they knew it had run up a £1.6 million deficit. Just over a month later, the proposal to close the school was issued by the same IEB and KCC. It is difficult to know what to say about this breathtaking exchange, except that it underlines a similar level of incompetence and misleading information to that emanating from KCC over the whole period.

The Minutes disclose other failures by the IEB, including the decision not to accept the proposal by Lilac Sky, who were managing the school for them, that the school needed a complete re-branding if it was to stand a chance of success. Parents have been making the same point ever since the school was put at risk, although it has been repeatedly dismissed out of hand by KCC. The importance of re-branding is underlined in the new proposal: “Broomhill Bank, in conjunction with KASS and KCC will introduce a robust plan to market the school”. Staff even put together a well thought out business proposal to ensure the residential accommodation was run most effectively, but the IEB didn’t even trouble to acknowledge receipt let alone respond, so we don’t know if they bothered to consider it.

So, the good news for the families concerned is that, assuming this proposal goes through, the current children will have an assured future, although for the staff, it is far more uncertain. Still at least they knew what was coming as even before the Consultation was concluded, they received letters from KCC’s Redundancy Sub-Committee stating that “due to the closure of the school you are at risk of redundancy from your post as a…….and that your post will be made redundant from 31st August 2015”. Not a ‘possible closure’, staff were told the decision had already been made which, along with other faulty aspects of the procedure is likely to land KCC with wrongful dismissal issues. I am sure that Broomhill Bank, as soon as the final decision is made, will want to retain some of the staff as it expands its activity, but sadly, some will have to go.

As for the families, assuming that the Broomhill Bank arrangement goes through, they will now know what to look forward to. The last three months have been very traumatic, unnecessarily so, as the arrangements for finding alternative schools for these vulnerable children, for whom security and stability are paramount to their mental health, has been shambolic to put it politely as explained in previous articles. At a recent full Kent County Council meeting, Gordon Cowan, Leader of the Kent Labour Group estimated that private school fees likely to be incurred would top £2 million per annum, and this was not challenged by KCC. What about those children who have entered into such arrangements with the approval and encouragement of KCC? Is there a legal obligation by the County to make payments if the child pulls out? Given that there will now be appropriate provision at the new annex, will KCC be able to block these children taking up places in expensive private schools at fees of up to £150,000 p.a?

The proposal document by KCC still shows it is living in fantasy land, amongst other reasons by championing the two proposed new ASD Unit provisions at Hugh Christie Technology College and Wilmington Academy as an alternative to the proposed annex, although it has now dropped any suggestion that Units are appropriate. The authors still do not appreciate the significance of the qualification 'High Functioning' which has an important  effect on appropriate ASD  provision. 

It has however dropped its false claim 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”,
having consistently failed to provide any evidence for this, in spite of repeated requests to justify the claim. Indeed, Mr Leeson, Corporate Director of Education and Young  People's Services, denied in his response to me that it had ever been said!
It has been alleged by a current member of staff that, contrary to claims in the proposal:
1) Prospective families have been shown round the school since September but have been told the school was not allowing new admissions;
  • 10 transfer papers were ready for processing before Christmas but no action was taken.
I am not aware this has been denied.
Although I have made clear this article is not focusing on issues raised previously, and one can imagine reasons why KCC officers have generally taken the decisions they have, one great mystery remains. Why, when the proposal to redesignate Furness School as a High Functioning ASD provision was put in June 2014 to the Education and Young Persons Cabinet Committee was no mention whatsoever made of the deficit at the end of 2013/14 of £868.578, or the forecast deficit for 2014/15 of over £1.5 million. Many parents and myself have repeatedly pressed KCC for an answer to what appears a deliberate misleading of the County Council by officers, but no answer whatever has been forthcoming, which appears to demonstrate guilt and misconduct.

It is evident that KCC Officers have shown a determination to rub out Furness, and place children in alternative provision, including a large proportion at very expensive private schools. There are two reasons why the current proposal has come forward.  Firstly, that the Kent Association of Special Schools, alarmed at the loss of essential provision, has put forward this precise proposal and secondly, this has been explicitly supported by Paul Carter, the Leader of Kent County Council. The latter support is demonstrated by his comments at the recent Council meeting which appear to contradict officer views. You will find the webcast of the discussion here, from minute 50 when Mr Cowan introduced the subject and expresses his concerns about costs,  through to minute 57 when Paul Carter expressed his support for the proposal.

KCC’s current official view is clearly that this is a sensible proposal on the table, which should be acceptable to all (except those staff who lose their jobs), and so we should move on. One cost of this is the £1.6 million deficit which will now be written off to be paid for by Kent’s maintained schools, but we shall now save, although from a different budget the costs of private schooling of the children concerned which officers appeared happy to pay out. The incalculable cost on family wellbeing will also be written off, as well as the enormous goodwill towards Furness of a staff that has fought hard to keep their school open.

However, one cannot deny the bottom line which is that in a few years time, Kent’s Special School Provision, currently with the best overall OFSTED results of any schools in the county, will be even stronger for the benefit of our most vulnerable and disabled children.  

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 April 2015 16:02

1 comment

  • Comment Link Friday, 10 April 2015 19:01 posted by jackie

    It's all sounding very promising however one very big question still needs answering - what strategies are going to be put in place to stop deficits like this happening again? It has been like hell on earth with KCC holding a loaded gun while parents have stood looking down the barrel. We have been put under undue stress during this time, some parents have had health conditions worsen due to stress, personally I have had sleepless nights worrying about the future. What assurances are going to be set in stone to stop other parents and children going through this? PETER: Excellent questions, which could also have been asked after the previous Chaucer Technology debacle went down without "lessons being learned". This whole mess places serious doubts about the competence of KCC to manage difficult issues, or even tell the truth about them (once again). On the other hand, some Academy chains are even worse and don't carry responsibility for the children afterwards.

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