'Vital' Green Room facing the red light

7th May 2010 at 01:00
Special school's pioneering project threatened by SEN funding uncertainty

Brynllywarch Hall Special School occupies a unique position at the heart of rural Powys.

The grade II-listed former mansion house sits in deep woodland near the village of Kerry, providing an isolated and peaceful location in which to support the emotional and behavioural needs of its 76 pupils, aged between eight and 18.

It is also home to a unique project called the Green Room, a facility that offers bespoke support and guidance to pupils with the most severe difficulties.

Since it was started two years ago the initiative has helped more than 50 pupils and has become, in the words of deputy head Rob Davis, a "vital part of school life".

But the future of the groundbreaking scheme is in doubt, like many other special educational needs projects and facilities across Wales, due to national and local uncertainties over funding.

It is feared that cuts in funding from the Assembly government and a review of SEN provision by Powys Council may spell the end for the facility. Two of its four full-time staff members have already been cut in a bid to keep it running.

The Green Room idea started two years ago when special needs supply teacher Heather Hobman was sent to Brynllywarch to work with an eight- year-old girl who was considered uneducable.

Suffering from a range of severe emotional and behavioural problems, the girl was unable to take part in any kind of structured work and displayed aggression towards staff and pupils.

Ms Hobman, who had spent five years working in a behaviour support unit in Birmingham before moving to Wales, decided to remove the girl completely from the regular school structure and give her one-to-one support in a separate room.

"She lacked early experiences of bonding with a person and hadn't developed any social skills at all," she said.

"So we decided to take an almost nursery school approach; to take her right back to the beginning, removing all the usual daily activities and the need for her to feel control and instead we brought in play.

"We slowly built a trusting relationship with her and eventually she was re-integrated with the rest of the school. It proved a huge success."

Soon, other pupils were beginning to benefit, including a 13-year-old boy who had "reached crisis point".

"We gave him what this much younger child had - a small oasis in the day for him to access and learn to make choices. It took away his reasons for stress and his whole demeanour changed."

The successes confirmed to staff that the new approach could work on a wider scale, and headteacher Clive Williams set aside the entire top floor of Brynllywarch's main building to develop a new facility.

The aim was to provide the school's most difficult and disengaged pupils with a calm, stress-free environment where they could talk, play and relax, while staff could offer support and guidance and remove their barriers to learning.

The new facility had a dedicated classroom, an activity room, a chill-out room, a life-skills space, a fully fitted kitchen and a laundry.

Ms Hobman said: "There's no point in giving certain children a mainstream educational model because they have failed at that. Experience has shown me that an alternative model has to be put in and will work."

Pupils needing the extra support typically spend six weeks in the green room and then return to main school life when strategies have been put in place. However, the facility is always open and pupils can have free access during morning break and lunch time.

Mr Davis said agreeing to the Green Room was an "unprecedented move" with "huge risks", but that it had more than paid off.

But the scheme costs Brynllywarch a "significant" amount of money to run, and although it has the full backing of senior management, staff and parents, Assembly government post-16 funding cuts and Powys Council's SEN review may lead to its closure.

Mr Davis said that although "judicious" use of the school's funds had saved the facility for the short term, the school's budget may not be able to support it past April 2011, when funding for Ms Hobman's position runs out.

"At another school this would have been the first thing that would have gone," said Mr Davis. "But the bottom line is it's helping so many of our vulnerable children. It's become a vital part of school life and we think it's worth keeping."

Not so special?

Pre-16 SEN provision is currently funded by local authorities, while the Assembly government directly funds post-16 learners in special schools and out-of-county placements.

The government was recently forced to abandon plans to provide only 69 per cent of the funding to the post-16 sector after outcry from providers, politicians and teaching unions.

Although it has now agreed to provide 85 per cent for 201011, there are fears that the amount will continue to be reduced.

TES Cymru understands that the government is considering including post-16 SEN funding in the already stretched revenue support grant it gives to local authorities.

Leighton Andrews, the education minister, has also set up a group to look at funding the transition of special needs pupils from pre- to post- 16.

Like all local authorities in Wales, Powys is reviewing many of the services it offers in the light of budget shortfalls.

Original paper headline: Cash puzzle leaves `vital' Green Room facing the red light

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