Council spends pound;26m replacing four schools - but special needs capacity is reduced as provision is spread more evenly. Dorothy Lepkowska reports
Four schools are to close and three new ones are to be built as part of a pound;26 million overhaul of special needs provision in Sheffield.
The city council has published a strategy document that will radically alter the face of special education in the city between now and 2008.
Education chiefs said the aim was to counter the imbalance of provision, which is currently concentrated in the south of the city, and improve the quality of teaching and learning.
Although the overall special needs capacity in Sheffield will be reduced by 16 places, the proposals will create new centres of excellence, officials said, with state-of-the-art facilities. Pupils' travel times will be reduced, leading to efficiencies in transport planning and more involvement of parents in pupils' education.
It is hoped that better distribution of provision will also enhance partnerships between schools and other agencies.
Jonathan Crossley-Holland, the city's executive director for children and young people's services (designate), said: "This is the latest stage in our work to give all children the opportunity to succeed by providing special schools for children with the most severe and complex needs, and by sharing the specialist skills and knowledge in those schools to support inclusion in mainstream schools.
"The plans we're putting forward aim to spread special needs schools more fairly across the city, so that families feel more involved with their children's education.
"We need to make sure that all our school buildings are fit for their purpose, and that our children in special needs schools have the best possible learning environment. These plans show how, by closing some schools and building brand new ones, we can continue to serve children and families well."
Under the plans, which were published last month, the city will purchase land in the north of the city to build two special needs schools: one primary and one secondary.
These will replace existing provision at Oakes Park, East Hill secondary and Woolley Wood schools, which will be closed down.
The new schools, Holgate Meadow in Firth Park and Heritage Park in Arbourthorne, will open in September. Their focus will be on youngsters with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.
In the south of Sheffield, the existing Talbot School will be transferred to a new purpose-built facility on the site of Newfield School.
The local authority expects to employ all teachers and there will be no job losses.
Four other special schools - Bents Green and Mossbrook (residential institutions originally built for "delicate" children) and the Rowan and Norfolk Park special schools - will remain as they are.
Initially, these had been scheduled for merger into a single facility for children with communication problems, including autism.
However, it was decided to keep them open after a consultation found that they were popular with parents and provided a high-quality service.
Crossley-Holland said: "When we looked at the capital available, and the high-quality service already operating in these schools, confirmed by their popularity with parents, we realised that the best solution was to continue to support and develop these schools.
"The feedback I receive from families of children at our special needs schools is extremely positive and I'm proud of our performance in this area."
Further consultation with parents and teachers will take place in the coming weeks.
Crossley-Holland said: "Since the original reports were approved the Government's report, Every Child Matters, has reinforced our commitment to provide adequate support for vulnerable children."
The Sheffield plans come weeks after the charity Scope announced it was closing one school and selling another, as part of a new policy of greater integration and inclusion.