Preston school's expansion approved amid talks for others to add places
Lancashire County Council says it will do “whatever it takes” to increase the number of places for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) within mainstream schools.
The pledge was made by the authority’s cabinet member for schools, Phillippa Williamson, as she and her cabinet colleagues approved proposals for two new dedicated SEND units at schools in the east of the county.
Separately, Sir Tom Finney Community High School in Preston will become one of two special schools to expand, opening up a currently unoccupied upper floor and adding up to 72 pupils to its existing roll, to bring the maximum total to 245.
Headteacher Shaun Jukes welcomed the planned work, but added that the final tally of additional pupils is not yet certain, as the school is already operating over capacity.
“It gives us additional space to continue to support the young people that we have in school and offer additional places to support the local authority with their strategic plans for young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
“Anything that helps us to do that is brilliant.
“The extra floor will primarily be used to create new classroom space, with a couple of additional facilities that will support the already wonderful resources that we've got in school,” Mr. Jukes said.
Sixteen of the 18 respondents to a consultation into the changes at Sir Tom Finney School strongly agreed or tended to agree with the proposals. However, two strongly disagreed, mostly as a result of concerns over congestion and parking.
Lancashire County Council says that “steps will be taken” to address any potential problems arising from the expansion.
The mainstream SEND facilities will be created at Barrowford Primary School in Nelson and St Leonard’s Church of England Primary School in Padiham.
They were amongst just seven schools from across Lancashire to answer a call from the county council last year to create the units. However, three of them withdrew initial expressions of interest because of the pandemic, while two others - Lytham Church of England Primary School and Weeton Primary School - have also since decided not to pursue the plans.
The new facilities will each create 16 places - but County Hall’s initial aim was to generate 288 places across 24 different mainstream sites, split equally between the primary and secondary school phases.
The authority wants to close the gap between the proportion of SEND children educated within a mainstream environment and those attending special schools, when compared to the national average. Last year in Lancashire, 42 percent of SEND pupils went to special schools - 10 percent more than across England as a whole.
Papers to presented to cabinet members this week indicate that the county may be shifting gradually towards the national average, but that the process is likely to take several years.
Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali said that there had been “disappointingly slow progress” on the plans for SEND units within mainstream settings.
County Cllr Williamson appeared to share his sense of urgency.
“We are now talking to a number of schools, having really detailed conversations with them to try and progress this as quickly as we can.
“We’re pretty confident that we will be able to meet the numbers that we expect and we will do everything that we can - including, if that means more investment, or whatever it takes - to get these places into those mainstream schools.
“We know that is the best thing for the children and we know that’s what the children and parents want,” County Cllr Williamson said.
Cabinet members were told that eight schools were now in discussions with the authority, one of which is a secondary - the only one so far to have come forward - with a view to consultations taking place before the end of the academic year and the new units coming into operation from January 2022.
Plans were also approved for the expansion and relocation of another special school in the county - Broadfield Specialist School in Oswaldtwistle will shift to the disused Hameldon Community College in Burnley, with pupil numbers rising from 150 to 210. Prior to the move, two temporary classrooms will be installed on the current site to accommodate additional numbers.
In a statement after the cabinet meeting, County Cllr Williamson said: "Pupils should be taught at mainstream schools close to where they live where possible. Creating the new facilities at Barrowford Primary School and St Leonard's Primary in Padiham will mean we can offer extra places at the heart of local communities.
"However, we recognise that special school provision is also crucial. By developing Sir Tom Finney Community High School and moving Broadfield Specialist School to the site of the former Hameldon Community College in Burnley, we'll provide a range of additional specialised support for young people.
"These superb teaching facilities will help us to support children and young people to achieve their full potential in education, learning and future employment.
"The improvements are part of our long-term SEND strategy, which aims to provide learning opportunities, support children and young people to develop their talents and make a positive transition to adulthood."