Special schools dip toes in the deep end

15th April 2011 at 01:00
Heads of the first SEN schools to become academies tell Kerra Maddern how they came to their decision

Andy Barnett, Pencalenick School, Truro, Cornwall

Pencalenick is an "entrepreneurial" school, according to head Andy Barnett. He hopes that academy status will allow him to appoint a director of business and enterprise to mastermind the generation of new income. He also wants to employ more specialist staff, such as speech and language therapists and educational psychologists. Job vacancies at Pencalenick are always filled, not least because of Mr Barnett's policy of providing complementary therapies and counselling to staff.

Pencalenick is the only special school in the county rated as outstanding, but Mr Barnett doesn't think it has been "allowed to flourish" as part of Cornwall Council.

"We don't expect the council to have all the answers but nobody has come up with a strategic direction for us," he said.

"Council officials have been busy dealing with internal issues and schools have been neglected.

"We just want to be as efficient as possible."

There are 110 pupils at Pencalenick. Mr Barnett is also applying for teaching school status to cement his strong relationship with three other secondaries in the Truro area.

"We want to increase our capacity and depth of work so we can provide expert help to other schools in the area. We also want the freedom to employ all kinds of different staff and to continue with our extensive outreach activities," he said.

Sue Richardson, Beaumont Hill, Darlington, part of Darlington Education Village

Head Sue Richardson would not have been able to apply for academy status for her "village" - which includes Springfield Primary and Haughton Secondary - if Beaumont Hill had not been judged outstanding by inspectors last November. The other two schools are rated satisfactory.

Mrs Richardson says academy status is a natural step, and an "official stamp" on the work that teachers at the village have been doing since 2006. She hopes it will forge even more of a "collaborative partnership" between the three schools. Work to "blend" them will now be accelerated.

But one complication could be the ongoing debt incurred by the village's new private finance initiative building.

"We are at the early stages of discussions with the local authority about this and they have so far been productive," Mrs Richardson said.

"Clearly, this is not going to be straightforward - we have 20 years of repayments to go."

But Mrs Richardson also believes there will be a "financial advantage" to having academy status, although this wasn't initially clear during the application process.

"There was a risk in us applying, because the ready reckoner wasn't available until recently. The governors had to take a blind leap of faith."

Another reason for the decision by village governors to apply for academy status was the "early signs", according to Mrs Richardson, that most secondary schools in Darlington will also seek independence.

"There will be a retraction of local authority services. The landscape here is changing significantly and we don't want to stand out for the wrong reasons," she said.

Colin House, Dove House School, Basingstoke, Hampshire

Headteacher Colin House wants to use academy status to provide more support to pupils aged 16 and over, something he is not currently allowed to do by the local authority. He also wants to gain teaching school status.

"I want to break down the political barriers that have held us back, but we know our actions will anger other heads who want to stay as part of the Hampshire family of schools," Mr House said.

"But we have taken a pragmatic approach - I want what's best for the children.

"We can run more after-school clubs, train teachers, help children in other schools. This is the key that will unlock our development.

"We are part of a big, excellent local authority. But it's hard for them to have a policy that fits all schools, particularly special schools, which are unique."

Mr House also wants to expand the school's "link centre", which teaches life and social skills to older pupils. It was set up to stop pupils leaving school and becoming "Neets" - young people not in employment, education or training.

Andrew Mears, Montacute School, Poole, Dorset

Andrew Mears also feels academy status will give his school a "financial incentive". Like other special school heads, he doesn't believe he has an "optimal" relationship with his local authority. He wants greater control of his budget and the chance to lobby for a new building.

Montacute was part of a Building Schools for the Future bid, together with a cluster of other local schools. Education secretary Michael Gove has now cancelled it. Mr Mears is sceptical of getting funding in the current economic climate, but he hopes that being able to campaign for help as an academy will be more effective.

"This has been an issue for us for years and we've done everything to get a new building. We've signed up to every government initiative, from becoming grant maintained to having foundation and now academy status," he said.

"We are desperate for someone to recognise the problems with our building - it's damaging children's life chances. For a local authority or government to say there's no money doesn't take away their responsibility for that.

"We hope there will be recognition that we were an `early adopter' and that we have thrown our hat in the ring."

Mr Mears is optimistic that academy status will make it easier for him to take on pupils from council areas other than Poole, which is a small local authority.

"We have to keep places open for the local authority; meanwhile, there are other children living nearby who have to travel long distances to go to other special schools," he said.

Trystan Williams, Springfields School, Calne, Wiltshire

Trystan Williams was thrilled to receive his academy order signed by Michael Gove and schools minister Lord Hill last week. "To us, academy means excellence and we see this as a vehicle for going from outstanding to great and world class," the headteacher said.

"We want the school to have a more business-oriented approach and that's already becoming an integral and vital part of what we do.

"If we get all these things right, children will have an even better education."

Mr Williams, who has been in charge for six years, hopes academy status will allow him to support more pupils from mainstream schools, rather than only those with statements. Teachers will provide "packages" for these pupils so they can move flexibly between the two schools.

There are 76 boarding pupils at Springfields, but teachers also work with 500 other children aged between eight and 17 - some from other schools.

"We also hope it will lead to us increasing our finances - we can take on consultancy work and run conferences.

"The concept of being able to stand on our own two feet is very exciting," Mr Williams said.

"It's crucial that we maintain a positive relationship with our local authority, Wiltshire, and officials there have been very supportive.

"When I joined this school, the local authority couldn't see a future for a residential school of this size. Now we are outstanding."

Jinna Male, Alfriston School, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire

Teachers at Alfriston want academy status so they can have "greater flexibility and freedom". They hope that signing up to the policy early will allow them to "shape" the girls' school and avoid their local authority making unpopular changes to the way it is run.

"We are passionate about what we do and we think we know best about the needs of our children and how we can meet them," said head Jinna Male.

"We want to grow and develop, but we did sign up knowing questions about assessment and funding were yet to be answered, so we are approaching this with caution."

Mrs Male hopes to reopen as an academy by September. Buckinghamshire County Council officials were considering making the school co-educational and scrapping the boarding provision.

"This was a factor in the background when we were making the decision to go for academy status. We are very successful as we are and our pupils are getting a good deal; there is no immediate need to make any changes," Mrs Male said.

Sue Bourne, The Avenue School, Reading

Eight years ago council officials were considering closing The Avenue, but teachers resisted and now the school not only has an outstanding Ofsted rating, but also a new purpose-built building

Head Sue Bourne has had her academy order signed by ministers.

She hopes to continue the school's work, which has a performing arts specialism, to support other special school teachers.

"Academy special schools will be everything that outstanding special schools are.

"The status will make a statement about the extremely high standards we have achieved, will give us the ability to be even more creative and innovative and also, importantly, enable us to make a difference for even more pupils," she said.

"The school has gained many accolades and awards over the years and each one makes a statement about the quality of the work of pupils and staff across the entire school.

"The school has had four Ofsted inspections in eight years.

"The first was good with outstanding features, the next two were outstanding.

"The last inspection will be published by the end of the week and we are very pleased with it."

Mrs Bourne will now apply for teaching school status.

Original headline: Special schools dip their toes in the deep end

Related article: SEN independents line up as free-school door is opened


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