Let's stay calm

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Special schools haven't been fashionable ever since the Warnock report came down on the side of integration 20 years ago. But now parents of MLD children are organising to resist the culture of closure, writes Nicholas Pyke

There is quite a view from the classrooms of St Anne's. Perched high up on the edge of Lewes in East Sussex, the school looks out over trees to the South Downs, rising smooth and green above the town. It has been a wonderful location for several generations of children with special educational needs.

St Anne's, built as a Victorian rectory for the main church on the high street, has just celebrated its 50th anniversary as a school. But it is unlikely to see another decade pass: in March, Conservative-controlled East Sussex County Council decided to close it.

It has been all too easy for those connected with the school to believe its wooded grounds in one of England's most picturesque towns have been its undoing. The school would bring in more than pound;2 million if sold to property developers. Yet this is far from the whole picture. As East Sussex points out, the money it could earn by selling the site would be a fraction of the county's special needs budget. Instead, St Anne's faces extinction along with hundreds more schools once described as MLD - catering for children with "moderate learning difficulties" - because it is regarded as outdated and unnecessary.

It will not go without a fight. Only last year, the school was praised by Ofsted for the excellence of its work with children aged four to 16 who come with a range of special educational needs, mostly connected with moderate learning problems and, increasingly, mild autistic spectrum disorders. Many are there because big comprehensives are unsuitable for them. Some are at St Anne's because they have been expelled from mainstream. It is one of only a handful of special schools in the United Kingdom to have been given the Arts Council's prestigious Artsmark gold award for its creative work, displayed everywhere on the school's yellow and white walls.

Votes of confidence from Ofsted and the Arts Council will certainly help St Anne's and headteacher Jill Ingold's team, but they are unlikely to prove decisive. Special schools have been closing down over the past 20 years, partly because of the shift towards educating children with special needs alongside their peers that followed the Warnock report and the 1981 Education Act. There are no official figures showing how many have been shut, or how many are due to close. The situation is even more confusing because the number of pupils educated in the special sector - private or public - has remained constant for the past 10 years, according to figures from the Department for Education and Skills.

MLD schools such as St Anne's have been progressively emptied of their students while the number of pupils found to have other, more serious disorders - particularly autism, behavioural problems and the "profound and multiple disorders" associated with children who in a previous era of medical science would not have survived - has been increasing.

Special school parents have not had much of a voice in all this, tending to be drowned out by the highly organised campaign for ever greater levels of inclusion mounted by the disability lobby. But finally, they have been prompted to set up the Special Schools Protection League, based in Gloucestershire. Graham Barton, founder and co-ordinator, says he has been overwhelmed with support and correspondence since the start of this year, when the organisation made the leap from local group to national body. His interest comes from personal experience; the special school attended by his daughter is scheduled for closure, along with others in the county. "We've had so many letters and emails we can hardly cope," he says.

It seems to mark a major shift in attitude. Huge progress has been made persuading primary schools and neighbourhood comprehensives to include children whose physical disability or learning difficulty would once have meant life in a separate school. For many it has been a liberation. But the balance of the argument is tipping in the opposite direction. Local authorities, keen to do the Government's bidding by closing down special schools, are coming up against parents who insist their children are educated in the small classes and stability of a school like St Anne's. For the first time, moreover, they are organised and ready to press their case in court.

If you walk through the twisting Victorian corridors, St Anne's sounds and feels pretty much like any other small school, a big attraction to parents and pupils. It smells of poster paint and glue rather than disinfectant.

There are only 72 pupils, but at break time the stairways and corridors are filled with the sound of children chatting and playing. A visitor finds the older pupils experimenting with desktop publishing in the computer room, while in the science lab they are clustered around a computer-linked microscope, looking at crystals. A film-making session is under way in English, while another class of smaller children is discussing the school rules and rewards system.

It is this normal environment that parents such as Julie Champion value, and which they believe will prove irreplaceable. Mrs Champion's six-year-old son, Ryan, has floating-harbor syndrome (a rare genetic disorder named after the Boston and Californian hospitals in which it was first identified), which has left him with a combination of learning and speech problems, small stature, and behavioural difficulties. Ryan is frequently unmanageable at home so his mother regards the staff at St Anne's as something close to miracle workers for keeping him calm and stable. As a parent-governor at St Anne's, Mrs Champion is leading the fight against the council's closure plans.

The root of the difficulty is money. East Sussex would like to develop its special schools, but says it is unable to do so unless places such as St Anne's are shut down. It says the majority of the pupils at Lewes should attend mainstream school. The remainder, the most seriously disadvantaged, would go to Grove Park school in Crowborough, 14 miles away. This is a school for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties, but East Sussex is promising to expand it so that Grove Park becomes a "super" special school, or "general needs" school, catering for a wider range of disorders. The decision sums up the drift of policy on special schools, which envisages a continued movement of children with less severe needs into the mainstream. If necessary, they will be placed in special units attached to secondaries. The few remaining special schools, meanwhile, are expected to concentrate on the growing number of pupils with more complex problems.

It is a sign of the uncertainty over the sector's future that the Government has instituted a review under Baroness Ashton, minister for school standards and early years. An interim report is available for public consultation until July. Although, on the face of it, the document is a boost for special schools because it states the Government's clear support for their continued existence, it is of little help to St Anne's and similar schools. The Government continues to press education authorities to integrate all but the most badly affected children. With this in mind, East Sussex is projecting a dramatic decrease in the number of children deemed suitable for St Anne's, claiming that by 2007, when it wants to close the school, its numbers would be down to an unviable 20.

While the theory is attractively neat, the practicalities are not. In the first place, the figures are hotly disputed by a school that is popular with pupils, parents and other headteachers in the area. It has the support of the local MP, Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, and the Anglican Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Benn. The school had its biggest ever Year 7 intake last September and says it could easily expand as opposed to merely filling. The alternative, meanwhile, would be at least an hour's drive for some children.

"The case for staying open is need," says deputy head Bob Kilbey. He is free to speak because he is retiring shortly, unlike other members of staff who have been given no assurances about their jobs or careers. "We have shown that there are sufficient numbers of Year 7 to be more than viable.

We're a good school. Ofsted has said so, twice. Ninety-five per cent of the teaching was good, and 20 per cent was excellent. On top of that, other special schools in the county are full. It doesn't affect me because I'm leaving, but I'm determined to fight."

This is the sort of evidence that Julie Champion presented last month to a hearing of the East Sussex school organisation committee - representing schools, councillors and educationists - the latest stage in the school's campaign to remain open. It submitted a letter in which every special school in the county calls for St Anne's to remain open, not least on the grounds that they are all bursting at the seams. The committee opposed closure, but not unanimously. So the uncertainty will continue until an independent adjudicator, appointed by the Government, reaches a decision by the summer.

If St Anne's is so popular, it is also badly needed, say the teachers, who question the viability of the proposed alternatives. They suggest that combining autistic and hyperactive children in a new general needs school, along with others who struggle to communicate, is unlikely to prove successful. Many of those at St Anne's are there because they cannot cope with life at a comprehensive. Nor would they tolerate attending an institution alongside children who are unable to speak or feed themselves.

"That school (Grove Park) is for pupils with severe learning difficulties, including children with profound multiple difficulties," says Mr Kilbey.

"They say they want to gear it up to take a range of children. If you look at our Year 10s, they're streetwise. With the best will in the world, they are not going to mix with children who have severe learning difficulties.

It's going to be bad for the children at Crowborough and bad for our kids.

Exclusion rates are going up, not down. It's crazy."

Julie Champion will not be sending her son Ryan there, even if St Anne's does have to close, partly because she objects to the hour-long drive it would entail, and partly on a matter of principle. She does not see why a good school doing an obviously successful job with difficult children should be closed. She also has no faith that the planned super-school, dealing with a range of severe disorders, would be able to recreate the calming atmosphere that allows her son to cope at St Anne's.

For now, at least, it seems the general needs school is the way of the future, and that the comfortable, but slightly battered classrooms and stairways of the former rectory will be consigned to the past. A final decision will be made later this year, although there remains a strong possibility that the parents will take legal action to stop the closure, and keep their children within sight of the Downs.

The view is not so good to the rear of St Anne's, where the brutalist concrete blocks of county hall loom over the playground. This is where the closure decision was made, of course, a coincidence Julie Champion finds appropriate.

For more information on the Special Schools Protection League, visit: www.gsspl.org.uk.To order a copy of the report from the special schools working group tel: 0845 6022260 or visit www.dfes.gov.ukconsultations

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