Benfleet special school classrooms approved as demand rockets

New permanent accommodation will be built at a specialist school in Benfleet to replace the dilapidated temporary classrooms that are no longer “fit for purpose”.

The Essex County Council proposal is to demolish the existing temporary accommodation at Cedar Hall School and construct a permanent, standalone, building to provide four general classrooms as well as an art room and a combined hair and beauty and textiles classroom.

There will also be a combined construction and mechanics classroom, a library, staff room and changing rooms.

Councillor Tony Ball, cabinet member for education, said the new accommodation is required to replace temporary classrooms which are “no longer fit for purpose”.

If the classrooms are not replaced there will be a loss of 60 places at the school which cannot be provided elsewhere within Essex maintained special schools, he added.

He told Essex County Council cabinet today (February 15): “The purpose built accommodation will provide pupils with greater opportunity to gain further skills and certification such as BTEC thus enabling them greater opportunities upon leaving education.”

Work is likely to be completed by 2023.

Cedar Hall School caters for children aged five to 16 with moderate learning difficulties (MLD) and severe learning difficulties, including those on the autistic spectrum.

Demand for places at the school has grown over the years, due to population growth and a rise in the number of children and young people who require a special school place, putting pressure on the school’s infrastructure.

A newly developed forecasting tool has shown that numbers will rise further meaning that there will need to be investment in new special school places in the county.

Cllr Ball added: “The do nothing option is not an option.

“This is about investing in our estate, investing in our areas, in our schools but most importantly it is about investing in the most vulnerable children that we have in the county.”

A report in 2020 revealed the amount spent on special educational needs in Essex is estimated to rocket to twice initially forecast.

In May 2018 Essex County Council estimated individual packages of educational support, such as tuition or vocational training would cost £6.8million based on services for approximately 700 pupils at the time over four years.

In its first year (2019/20), the framework supported 577 pupils at a cost of £5million for year one – an increase of 180 per cent in the number of pupils requiring the provision of alternative education from 2018/2019.

This unexpected demand for services from the framework has exceeded forecasts and, based on current demand, the council’s use of the framework will be £13.2million for the remainder of the framework term, until it expires in 2023.

A statement to cabinet at the time said: “It is anticipated that this level of need and demand for services from the framework is likely to continue until Essex County Council’s SEN and PRU (pupil referral unit) capital programmes delivers the necessary increased capacity in the Essex special schools and pupil referral units.

“The need for an increase in capacity has led to a programme for delivery of four new special free schools for autism and social, emotional and mental health (the two areas of need driving the greatest demand and capacity deficit) and the development of a PRU estate which is fit for purpose.

“Essex County Council ais in discussion with the Department for Education regarding the construction of these schools and the target date for delivery is 2023.

“Essex has seen a 62.9 per cent increase in the numbers of pupils entering PRUs since 2018.

“This is more than double the increase across the eastern region and England and will be one of the key drivers for the project linked to students who are not in full time education.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter