Government minister rules against Redbridge Council in dispute over bid to take over special needs school in Chigwell

A senior minister has ruled Redbridge Council cannot take over a specialist school for autistic children after another council objected.

Minister for Housing Stuart Andrew was asked to step in to resolve a dispute between Redbridge, Epping Forest District Council and the National Autistic Society (NAS) over who could reopen the Anderson School in Chigwell.

The school closed after only three years in September 2020 following “serious behavioural incidents”.

Redbridge struck a deal to take over the school, re-opening it as a more general special needs school, but Epping Forest objected, citing its previous agreement with NAS that the school would only cater to autistic children.

A planning appeal ensued between the NAS and Epping Forest, with the added involvement of Essex County Council and letters from two unhappy Essex MPs.

The appeal was then passed on to Mr Andrew, who has ruled Redbridge should not take over as this would likely result in “some reduction” in options for children with autism.

The minister did make a concession, approving a change to the planning condition to allow the school to be run by “an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) school provider” instead of the NAS directly.

Following the advice of a planning inspector, he found this was acceptable as the original planning condition must serve a “useful purpose”.

Redbridge Council has declined to comment on this decision, but has previously said it is “actively identifying alternative options” for special educational needs and criticised Essex County Council for blocking the takeover.

Redbridge’s corporate director of people Adrian Loades previously said: “Without this option, the children would be educated in mobile classrooms on already highly constrained sites or be placed in schools considerably more distant from Redbridge.”

During the appeal, Epping Forest criticised the NAS for a lack of transparency in the way it chose Redbridge as a new operator, arguing that the NAS “failed” to show why it could no longer run the school.

It added: “No information has been given as to the other potential providers considered, or the relative weighting given to educational criteria as opposed to financial or other matters.”

Following the planning decision, the NAS has now announced special educational needs provider, Witherslack Group, will run the school.

Witherslack Group, who hope to reopen The Anderson School “as soon as possible” are a growing special educational needs provider with more than 60 schools and children’s homes across the country.

Caroline Stevens, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said: “We are delighted that Witherslack Group will be providing specialist education to local autistic children and young people at our former Anderson School in Chigwell.

“We received a number of very strong proposals and believe that Witherslack Group are well placed to offer excellent support. They are well-respected and experienced, with a proven track record.

“We would like to take this moment to apologise once again to students, families, carers and our staff for failing to live up to the ambition we had for our own school and for the disruption and uncertainties our decision to close has caused.”

The Lancashire-based group’s most recently published accounts for the year ending March 2020 show it employed more than 1,500 staff and had a turnover of £95million.

The company runs three other schools in south east England: Chilworth House School and Chilworth House in Oxfordshire and Queensmead House School in Windsor.

Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter