Taxpayers could be funding private SEND school provision

Plans to convert an underused medical centre into a private special needs school funded by the taxpayer will help play a “critical role” in bridging a shortfall in places – in the face that Essex County Council is the worst in England for completing children’s SEND assessments.

The plans to redevelop the South Woodham Ferrers clinic in Merchant Street into a special education needs school could provide places for around 45 pupils aged 11 to 16.

The plans come as the council battles to improve its record in processing send assessments and reduce the number of children assessed as having special needs waiting for a special needs placement.

Just one per cent of children receive an assessment for an educational health care plan (EHCP) within the legal time limit of 20 weeks.

Requests for a special needs assessment increased by 143 per cent between 2015/16 and 2022/23.

In 2016 Essex was responsible for 7550 children and young people with an Education Healthcare Plan. In January 2024 the number increased to 13,228 – a 75 per cent increase.

Of the almost 4,000 requests made between 2022 and 2023, the council has said that 56 per cent of them should take place.

More than 250 children assessed as requiring specialist education are waiting for a place.

Parent Victoria Cameron told councillors that difficulty in accessing SEND provision “strains EIC families financially and emotionally”.

She said: “What are you doing about our children desperately needing a placement but without one.”

Ralph Holloway, the head of Send strategy at Essex County Council, told councillors the council was “at the bottom” of the list of all authorities responsible for EHPs and that more SEND schools were needed.

He added: “We’ve got 256 children with an education healthcare plan awaiting provision which is clearly unacceptable.

“What we’re doing about it is growing our specialist provision.”

The council has announced plans to consult in a new special school in Rochford, it plans to expand Glenwood in Benfleet and is looking to create a new specialist provision um in the Dengie.

He added: “None of that happens quickly enough and we acknowledge that um but we we definitely need new specialist provision to be able to meet the growing need across the county.”

Octavia House said its plans would create existing placements by utilising the private sector.

The proposed school will differ from a typical state-funded school as it is an independent special needs school with places funded by local authorities. The Ofsted report says annual fees are £50,000.

Octavia House are described as “therapeutic special schools which educate and care for pupils who have endured adverse childhood experiences and have EHCPs.”

Octavia House currently has four independent schools in Vauxhall, Walworth, Kennington and Chelmsford. It is developing a fifth in Nine Elms.

Its school in Great Baddow, Chelmsford, opened in June 2022 and was judged in 2023 to be outstanding.

Permitted development rights apply for applications to provide a state-funded school.

A statement added: In this case, the proposed school differs from a typical state-funded school as it is an independent special needs school with places funded by local authorities. It is therefore somewhat of a grey area as to whether this change of use would  constitute permitted development.”

The building it wants had been used as a GP surgery until 2019 when it relocated to a new larger site at Kingsway Surgery at Crouch Vale Medical Centre off Burnham  Road.

Since then the building has operated as a private medical clinic – albeit underused with just one or two private consultants spasmodically practising from the centre

The statement said: “Universities, colleges schools and early years providers facilitation education provision to the whole community and contribute significantly to the local economy.

“Also, as the population grows, there will be a need for additional school places within South Woodham Ferrers and the wider community which will only be met by expanding existing schools or providing new schools.

“The proposal will help to play a critical role in the successful implementation of a new school with South Woodham Ferrers that will not just be providing a new school for growing school places in general but providing placements to a local authority managing an ever-increasing number of children with SEND who need specialist therapeutic school placements.”

A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: “Children may be placed at an independent special school if their needs cannot be met at an Essex special school, or if there is a lack of capacity.

“A new Essex special school for children and young people with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs, Greenwell in Harlow, opened in temporary accommodation in September 2023. The Department for Education is building a permanent site for the school in Harlow.

“Another new SEMH special school, Sir Geoff Hurst, is also scheduled to open in Spring 2025.

“Both these two new schools will reduce the need to place children in Essex at independent special schools.

“The council is happy with the provision at Octavia House, as evidenced in their excellent recent Ofsted inspection.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter