New special school proposal comes with ‘significant’ planning application risk

The first special school in one of Essex’s most rural areas is set to be agreed by the education authority amid a need for the county to provide an additional 612 SEND places by 2026 – but there is a hefty risk permission may not be granted by the planning authority.

Essex County Council says a 190-place special school for children and young people with severe learning difficulties to open by September 2026 will help accommodate population growth across south Essex.

The school is being planned with two campuses – with 40 places at Chetwood in South Woodham Ferrers and 150 places at the 500-home Wolsey Park development in Rayleigh.

If all goes to plan it could be open by September 2026.

Essex County Council owns the site of the former Chetwood School, six miles from Wolsey Park. The Chetwood building is currently vacant and is subject to a 25-year lease which started in August 2010 to William de Ferrers School. The council is looking to agree terms for the termination of the lease.

However, Essex County Council adds there is a high risk that planning permission for the Wolsey Park site – initially set aside for a primary school but which is no longer needed – will not be granted due to site constraints.

The council says it is the only site readily available for such provision and it will make use of the DfE funding available. However, it adds “there are significant risks to delivery”.

To provide 150 special school places a three-storey building is needed but the site area is small for a building of this capacity.

The council says the school will need to be designed to minimize the impact on neighbours, but it may not be possible to come up with a design which is acceptable in planning terms.

It also says the land required for the building, parking and drop off, pick up area will leave insufficient space to meet normal standards for outdoor recreation which could result in a planning objection from Sport England.

Also, a new requirement for developments to produce a 10 per cent net gain in biodiversity may not be accommodated.

The number of potentially 150 morning and 150 afternoon drop-offs for pupils plus over 100 staff and visitor cars will increase traffic on the roads on the estate which could also lead to objections to planning, it adds.

A statement to the cabinet due to agree on the plans adds: “It will be seen that it is likely to be necessary to make a strong planning case for the need for the school to counter-balance the potential planning issues.

“The significantly positive response to the consultation and the current deficit of specialist provision in Essex generally and Rochford specifically give us grounds for thinking that a powerful argument can be made for consideration by the planning authority.”

The county says the increased need for provision for children and young people with moderate learning difficulties and severe learning difficulties in south Essex has placed “considerable pressure” on existing special schools.

A recently published DfE assessment showed that Essex’s special schools are currently operating at “significantly beyond” their physical capacity.

The number of children and young people who live in Essex with an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) has increased by 34 per cent in the last four years from a total of 8,268 in 2018 to 11,092 in 2022.

Over the same period, there has been a 46 per cent increase in Essex’s special school population from 2015 to 2022.

Its special school forecasting is showing that the number of children for whom an EHCP is maintained will increase by 23 per cent between 2021 and 2026 to 12,612 EHCPs.

By 2026 Essex will need an additional 612 special school places to meet the anticipated growth of children and young people with an EHCP who need a special school place.

The council forecasts that by 2029 it will have between 13,609 and 15,020 SEND children by 2029.

This need has become acute in Rochford where there is no special school provision.

A statement added: “The predominantly rural nature of the Rochford District and the comparatively small population of the district means that there is currently no special school provision in the Rochford district. Children and young people (CYP) who need a place in a special school must travel outside of the district. The increase in the SEN population means that it is now appropriate for one to be provided.”

The council is also facing pressure after admitting its performance in assessing children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is “unacceptable”.

Its assessment backlog has been assessed as the worst in England, although its performance has improved “slightly” from the 99 per cent of assessments taking longer than the 20-week deadline.

As of May 1, there are 2,237 open cases. Of these, 26 cases have been open longer than 52 weeks. Essex County Council’s acceptance of failure came as the Tory group agreed to adopt a motion from the Lib Dem group that accepts concerns over scrutiny.

To tackle it Essex County Council is due to spend more than £1 million on paying for extra special needs assessment specialists in a bid to reduce its backlog.

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter