Concerns over plans for a new special school in Ilford

Parents of special needs students in Redbridge fear their children will be turned into “guinea pigs” if they are taught in a new school building due to concerns about their children’s safety and wellbeing.

In August, Redbridge Council secretly bought the former Park School for Girls building on Park Avenue in Ilford as part of its plan to create a new special needs middle school for children.

Children who are in year six at Hatton School & Special Needs Centre in Woodford Green and Little Heath School will be moved to the new building next September, with years seven and eight following later.

But parents of children at the schools have told the Local Democracy Reporting Service the former private school building is inappropriately designed and lacks the outdoor space their children require.

Park School for Girls, which closed in June last year, is a three-storey building on a residential Ilford road with a single hard surface playground that is about the size of a netball court.

Redbridge Council bought the building for an undisclosed sum in a decision that was only recorded on the council’s website as “acquisition of former school building”.

Clare, whose son is nine years old and would start at the new school building next year, said he would be part pf a “guinea pig intake” to the school if he starts there as planned in September 2024.

Her son is autistic, semi-verbal and often needs to leave school classrooms at Hatton School & Special Needs Centre to “burn off energy”.

She added: “It’s quite important if they’re having a meltdown, they have a soft place space if it’s raining, a sports hall with huge play equipment to play on.

“The idea of my son only having access to a netball court-sized area is really quite disturbing, it would have an impact on his behaviour there, his behaviour at home and his mental health.

“My son’s human right is to have space he needs to expel energy he has because of autism and ADHD – to take him and put him in a smaller space and say that’s the space he’s entitled to now is much much less, is a kind of breach of his rights – and he won’t be alone.

“I have a fear of him spending two or three years at this place where he makes no academic progress because he is disturbed and can’t move and run or climb as he needs to.

“I don’t feel he should be sacrificed… it has to be about quality.”

Other concerns outlined by parents who spoke to the LDRS include the number of stairs inside the building, small classrooms, and the safety of dropping their children off on a busy residential road.

Hina Ahmad said: “The feeling I’m getting is that this is not the right setting at all.

“We all agree that we do want another school, we do know there is pressure and shortage for these kids, but it has to be done in the right way.

“You can’t just buy a school and put it anywhere, you can do that with a neurotypical child but can’t with an autistic child.”

The parents said they felt compelled to speak to the media after meetings with council leader Jas Athwal and director of education Colin Stewart failed to reassure them.

In a public consultation about opening a middle school at the Park School for Girls site, which ran from September to October this year, the council told parents expanding Hatton and Little Heath schools would help it reach a target of creating 140 new special school spaces by 2023.

The consultation document said using the Ilford site would create 42 new places at Hatton and 70 new places at Little Heath from September next year.

This is part of the council’s “borough-wide expansion programme” that would provide 70 extra places in Redbridge and help “bridge the gap” between supply and demand for school places.

In response to this, parents questioned why expanding existing special needs schools, which have “so much potential”, has been dismissed as an option.

Using the unused school building would be “cost-effective” and is a “rare opportunity” for a site in central Ilford with good transport links, the consultation document added.

The council said it is seeing a “substantial growth in demand” for special needs places, with a 19.8 per cent increase in children with SEND needs between 2018 and 2021.

It argues that it has only “partially” been able to provide the needed number of new school places – estimated at about 140 – “with the bounds of the existing infrastructure”.

It estimates that repurposing the former private school into a specialist educational facility with added site security and vehicular access will cost £1.2million.

Children will move to the school in phases, starting with year seven in September 2025 and year eight the following year.

A spokesperson for the council refused to confirm how much it paid for the Park School for Girls, but its value was estimated to be at more than £900,000 in March last year.

They said: “We are proposing to invest in education to meet the demand for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). 

“Our priority is to offer the right kind of education in Redbridge to reduce the need for pupils to travel long distances to schools outside the borough. The current consultations follow statutory timescales.

“As a responsible education authority, we will ensure the necessary works are carried out to ensure school buildings meet pupils’ needs before enrolling If we progress with specific proposals after the consultation.”

A formal cabinet decision on the proposals is due to be approved by cabinet on November 30.

Hatton School provides 191 primary places and Little Heath 195 secondary, mostly for children with autistic spectrum disorder or speech, language and communication needs.

Details of the expansion and consultation can be found here: https://engage.redbridge.gov.uk/hatton-and-little-heath-schools

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Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter