County council asked to take over closing down autistic school

Parents with severely autistic children are calling on Essex County Council (ECC) to step in after a charity suddenly pulled the plug on a special school.

The National Autistic Society, which was handed the keys to Anderson School in September 2017, announced in April it was closing in the face of “very challenging circumstances”, including problems with recruitment and retention of staff.

Ofsted rated the £15million school, that was built on the former Spurs training ground in Chigwell, as ‘inadequate’ in April and the charity believes it could take years to bring the school up to the appropriate level.

But parent Miles Forrest, from Brentwood, said that does not make sense, with students like his own high functioning autistic 14-year-old son Robert who he says has been flourishing at the school.

He is worried that Richard, who is due to start his GCSE studies in September, may have to travel more than two hours to access education appropriate to him.

He said: “The ideal situation is, if the National Autistic Society want to wash their hands of it, they sell it as a going concern to either ECC or a separate education trust and transfer the staff over, so as far as the kids are concerned nothing has changed.

“That would be the ideal situation.”

The purpose-built school opened in 2017, funded by the Anderson Foundation and run by the National Autistic Society.

It offered hope for children with autism who were academically capable but could not cope with the social and physical requirements of mainstream schools.

The NAS’ decision has left around 50 students with no suitable school place for the next school year. This includes year 10 students preparing for GCSEs. There are no other schools in Essex which provide the special requirements needed by these children.

A statement from the school’s chief executive, Caroline Stevens, in April said: “Despite putting in a lot of energy and expertise to try to improve the school, we have sadly not been able to turn the situation around.  We know it could take years to bring the school up to the level we expect, and that would simply not be fair on our students, their families or carers.

“So, we have taken the very difficult decision to close the school at the end of the summer term, in July. This is never a decision that I would want to make, but I believe it is the right decision for our students’ long-term education and wellbeing.”

Mr Forrest added: “The parents got told at the same time as the council.

“And they are being very cagey about the reasons for closing – they say it would take too long to bring it up to the standard the children deserve, but instead they don’t have a school at all.

“What’s worse, not having a great education or no education at all?

“That why most of us parents don’t believe that as a storyline.”

Maryanne Proctor from Chigwell, whose 13-year-old daughter Faith attends the school, said: “I can’t say that all of Faith’s experience at the school was great; there were mistakes, and an Ofsted inspection that stated the school ‘required improvement’.

“However, from May 2019, with the support of phenomenal learning mentors and teachers, she was settled, learning and had become a much happier child.”

A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: “We are continuing to work with individual parents and the National Autistic Society to minimise disruption to the education of pupils currently attending The Anderson School. Our priority remains the education and welfare of the children and young people affected by the NAS’ decision to close the school.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter