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SEN independents line up as free-school door is opened

Heads and teachers are preparing to run special free schools after ministers opened up the controversial policy to independent special educational needs (SEN) schools.

Groups hoping to open SEN free schools will be able to apply to the Department for Education for permission and funding next month. The scheme was delayed while officials dealt with the complexities of setting up publicly funded independent special education.

The first successful applicant could be Paces, an independent school in Sheffield for children with cerebral palsy set up by parents almost a decade ago.

Chief executive Norman Perrin, who predicts the change will allow him to double the pupil roll, hopes to set up a "federation of special free schools" with colleagues from around England.

He first attempted to apply last August, but DfE officials will only start accepting applications this month. Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network - the body charged by the Government with helping free- school applicants - recently visited Paces.

"We have done an awful lot of ground work," Mr Perrin said. "We had conversations with the New Schools Network on the day it was set up and we were visited by staff from Partnerships for Schools.

"I have high hopes for our application. We are well placed to provide education. It is a win-win situation for the Government which will not require high-cost funding. It is a low risk for the DfE because we have a track record.

"I know of colleagues also hoping to apply who run secondary special schools and other forms of SEN education, and I would very much like us to join together."

Mr Perrin wants Paces to become a national charity and to take up to 64 pupils, up from the 29 currently at the school. "Many pupils come here after winning a place at an SEN tribunal. Becoming a free school will mean parents can apply to us directly and we have more ability to plan for our financial future," he said.

Special schools seeking free-school status must apply to the DfE in May. The first special free schools will open in September 2012.

CONCERNS: `The potential to be a nightmare'

Claire Dorer, chief executive of the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools, said few independent special schools would be "rushing" to join the state sector.

"At the moment there is no specific route for established schools. Heads feel it is in their best interests to keep their options open so they can weigh them up," she said. "It's important they know how much funding is available."

Martin Freedman, head of pay and conditions at education union the ATL, said: "The inclusion of SEN services into the free schools programme is the worst aspect of the policy.

"The idea of unqualified teachers doing this highly specialised job is disastrous. There are also the health and safety implications - free schools can be opened in many empty buildings including pet shops and funeral parlours. How is that suitable for children with SEN?

"This has the potential to be a nightmare and we are extremely concerned."

Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Brian Lightman said: "Provision for children with complex needs is extremely expensive and needs to be carefully strategically planned.

"Our worry about special free schools is all sorts will spring up in different areas and resources won't be used efficiently."

A DfE spokeswoman said: "We are pleased there are a number of groups that want to open free schools catering for children with SEN."

Related article: Special schools dip toes in the deep end

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