Proposed SEN school could help alleviate local need

UP FOR DEVELOPMENT: The former Fosse Bank School

The Witherslack Group is set to open a specialist education school only 4.5 miles from Tunbridge Wells.

The plan is to open the Special Educational Needs (SEN) school for primary and secondary pupils near Tonbridge, in
the former Fosse Bank School, which closed suddenly in March. The education provider has applied to refurbish the site in Hildenborough and the new school will cater to children aged eight to 18.

Subject to Grade II listed-building consent from Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council, the school will open in March 2024 and create 60 new jobs.

The Group provides specialist education and care for young people with a range of special needs, including autistic spectrum conditions, Asperger’s Syndrome, speech, language and communication needs, and other complex learning needs.

The proposal includes additional minor alterations, which are necessary for a specialist school which admits students with a high level of need.

The proposed new school will be good news for local parents, who have felt the squeeze of a lack of placements for local children in specialised SEN environments.

The demand for specialist schools has clearly been fuelled by the increase in children needing SEN support, says a specialist advisor for buying and selling businesses, Christie & Co.

“Suitable properties – including former mainstream schools that have closed, and other educational-related use establishments – remain highly sought after.”

Government statistics have confirmed that an increasing number of children require a place at a specialist SEN school. Kent County Council is forecasting a £12.5 million overspend in recruitment in this area.

To secure a place in a specialist school with SEN provision, children need an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in place before making an application.

EHC plans are legal documents that describe people’s educational needs, the support needed, and the outcomes they want to achieve.

The number of children with EHCPs in Kent mirrors the national upward trend. More than 14,000 children across the county already have an EHC plan, and more than 30,000 receive SEN support without one.

In Kent, the number of initial requests for an EHCP in 2022 was 3,669. Twenty-six per cent of those initial requests were refused during the calendar year.

Meraud Davis, a Behavioural Specialist at Aspens, told the Times: “EHCs can take years to get, and can be a very expensive and unpleasant process.

“We have one young person who has been diagnosed with autism and has been waiting 18 months for their EHCP.

“We need additional funding and better access to support for those with additional needs and a more forward-thinking and earlier approach to support.”

On July 26, the Times featured the story of Jemma Maddock, the mother of Arthur Maddock, 5, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Ms Maddock has been attempting to enrol her son into a specialist school since March 2022.

Speaking to the Times again, Gemma said: “I have now been told by KCC that I now have to appeal as they have decided that mainstream is better for my son. I have been told it could take months so my son will be failed until then, and we don’t even know if it would be a positive outcome.”

Despite Gemma’s experience, according to KCC’s Strategy for Children and Young People with SEN 2021/2024: “Pupils with an EHC Plan in Kent are less likely to be educated in a mainstream school than would be expected nationally.

“The majority of our school-aged children and young people with SEN attend a special school, with a significant proportion attending ‘out of county’ special schools”.

The additional issue affecting SEN placements is the continuing battle to recruit for multiple specialist roles in the SEN sectors. As at Friday August 31, an online search revealed a minimum of nine roles locally in the sector were still taking applications and needed to be filled for the start of the first term. Specialist schools Oakley School and Broomhill Bank are recruiting for multiple roles, including a full time SEN teacher and teaching assistants for the first academic term.

A report by the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council Finance and Governance Advisory Board, in advance of a meeting yesterday, states that within SEN, “recruitment has continued at pace, but the use of [agencies] remains high, to provide additional capacity, while the new structure and processes are embedded”.

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