North Yorkshire County Council are facing a legal challenge from a growing number of parents of special educational needs (SEN) children across the county.
This comes after the council chose to ignore the opinion of education professionals and of the public on February 20th; they voted through changes to SEN funding and cuts to the Pupil Referral Service (PRS) that will only widen the cracks in the education system. The decision will affect all children with an EHCP (Education and Health Care Plan) in North Yorkshire and all those children within the PRS; many feel it will increase the likelihood of our most vulnerable children falling out of schooling and into ill health, abuse and even criminality.
The ‘Save the PRS’ and ‘Save SEND North Yorkshire’ campaign groups battled against the council proposals and libdem and labour amendments were put forward to delay the cuts to the PRS for a year to allow for proper consultation and planning. Despite their unallocated reserves of £70 million, the amendments were voted down. Conservative Councillors had clearly been whipped to tow the part line and oppose the amendments; in doing so they demonstrated their wilful blindness to the facts and their blind willingness to follow their party.
The first cut of around 25% in April will begin the gutting of an Outstanding service which we are proud of. All Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) across the county are facing these cuts; all will have to reduce their service; some will be forced to close. The future of the Grove Academy PRU in Harrogate is one of those most in jeopardy. Parents and pupils are fearful it will be forced to close its doors within the year. Other PRUs may be able to limp on into next year but when the second cut, of between 25 and 40%, comes in in September 2020 it is very likely that the PRS across the county will come to an end entirely.
The council’s High Needs Budget is in defecit and this is clearly the motive for these rushed cuts. However, council officers argue it is a decision based on the laudable ambition to reduce exclusions. The problem with this stance is that their strategic plan is rather a set of principles than a practical, costed plan. The council hope that small, privately run, vocational schools called Alternative Provisions, will spring up and be of such good quality and value as to fill the gap left when the safety net of the PRS is cut back. However, AP across North Yorkshire is extremely scarce at present and OFSTED nationally has expressed great concern about pupils disappearing into unregulated, unmonitored, low quality APs. Even if APs were abundant, the new money being offered to mainstream schools to place students in them is so small as to be deemed “negligable” by one Headteacher.
It has come to light this month, as predicted, that council officers expect the PRUs to reduce their staffing to dangerous levels and pare back their curriculum to the bare minimum of core subjects. Even if this proposal were safe and enagaging for vulnerable, disaffacted students, which it is not, many local mainstream Headteachers have agreed with PRU headteachers that the funding is still simply not sufficient.
Both campaign groups have sought to negotiate with the council at every opportunity, and at every opportunity we have faced stern, simplistic rebuttals. The campaigns will now focus on the legal challenge against NYCC which has now widened its remit to include all 3 proposals voted through in February. Proposal 1 concerns a new banding system which will change the funding for students with special needs, Proposal 2 concerns the cuts to the PRS and Proposal 3 concerns a reduction in the educational entitlement of students with special needs after the age of 16.
The campaign groups welcome more contact from concerned parents of children with EHCPs, pre and post-16, educated in any North Yorkshire school. Next Friday, 5 April 2019, a Legal Rights Conference is being held at Sandburn Hall outside York to inform parents about their entitlements and the help available if they wish to complain about the provision for their child. We will also continue to lobby central government for an increase in funding to the High Needs Budget which finances the PRS.