SEN schools take 'leap of faith' with academy bids

11th February 2011 at 00:00
Eight sign up despite lack of detail on funding and admissions

Eight special schools have now applied to become academies, just weeks after the Department for Education opened up the process to those who teach pupils with special educational needs (SEN).

Heads of the pioneering schools have been warned they are taking a "leap of faith" by divorcing themselves from local councils.

Many funding and admissions details for special academies are yet to be announced, and the forthcoming green paper will impose other changes to the SEN system.

DfE officials delayed opening up the academy process to special schools because of the complexity of the issues involved - local authorities fund SEN schools differently and have full control over admissions.

But special schools have been able to apply for academy status since January and it is believed the first will open in September.

One of the first applicants is Alfriston School in Buckinghamshire. Teachers and parents at the school have been concerned by changes to admissions planned by Buckinghamshire County Council.

"This is a chance to shape our services better and to have greater flexibility and freedom," said head Jinna Male. "But we are proceeding with a lot of caution because there are still many questions about admissions, assessment and funding to be resolved by the Government.

"I believe a lot of special schools are waiting for the green paper to be released until they make a decision."

Special academies will not be able to immediately change their "characteristics" - for example, the number of places or the types of SEN they provide for. They will have to apply for permission to do this at a later date.

Budgets for special schools will remain the same if they become academies. But a review into their funding begins this spring.

David Bateson, chairman of the Federation of Leaders in Special Education and principal of Ash Field School and Assistive Technology Assessment Centre in Leicester, said the Government was not actively encouraging special school heads to apply for academy status.

"We are not being pushed," Mr Bateson said.

"The DfE has got to be very careful not to set up a system for the new special academies which is difficult to operate.

"Teachers need to be able to continue to focus on children rather than administration and that's what those trying to decide about academy status are currently scratching their heads about."

Local authority staff will remain in charge of assessing SEN and funding children's support. They will also monitor the work of SEN academies and review pupils' statements at least annually.

Parents can ask for their child to attend a SEN academy, but council officers will remain in charge of admissions. Children will still need to have a statement in order to go to a special academy.

Academy status will be a "leap of faith" for headteachers, according to Claire Dorer, chief executive of the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools.

Special schools not run by local authorities cannot bid for academy status and will have to become free schools to enter the state system.

"If the Government was really serious about special academies, they would have drafted these schools in from the start," Ms Dorer said.

"The process would be a lot less complicated because they already operate outside of local authority control."

THE APPLICANTS - Leading the way

Fosse Way, Radstock, near Bath.

Alfriston, Buckinghamshire.

Pencalenick, Truro, Cornwall.

Beaumont Hill, Darlington.

Dove House, Basingstoke.

Montacute, Poole.

The Avenue, Reading.

Springfields, Calne, Wiltshire.

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