Wiltshire Council’s cabinet vote on the future of its special schools
By Jo Waltham in Marlborough News
Last week Wiltshire Council's cabinet voted to close three special schools. Larkrise (Trowbridge), St Nicholas (Chippenham) and Rowdeford (Devizes) will be replaced by one new, academy-run, special school in Devizes.
The vote was unanimous even after many heartfelt pleas - from teachers, governors and parents -expressing concerns over increased travel times, lack of an A&E facility in Devizes, reduction of parental choice and the education of their children outside their communities.
A three-school solution was supported by 71 per cent of respondents to a consultation on these changes. So why did the cabinet vote for a single school instead?
Wiltshire Council needs more places for children with Special Education Need and/or Disability (SEND) and they need to improve the quality of that provision. The council also wants to reduce the cost of having Wiltshire children placed in independent and out of county schools.
They believe that one "centre of excellence" will solve these problems and that the only real question was where it should be. The Rowdeford site, in Devizes, was selected as it has excellent outdoor education facilities, room for growth, and is a central location for the whole of North Wiltshire.
I've been following this consultation closely as I've been campaigning to reduce the travel times SEND children in Marlborough experience. It is not just the time to travel from Marlborough to Devizes but the fact that these minibuses travel around the county picking up many children, resulting in some highly vulnerable children being on the bus for nearly two hours, each way, every day.
On hearing that the location of the new school was to be Devizes I felt relief that our Marlborough children will not have to travel even further to school, as would have happened if their school had been relocated to Chippenham or Trowbridge. But I do feel for the parents and children in Chippenham and Trowbridge who are now faced with the prospect of their children having to travel so far to school.
The proposal also addressed some of the concerns raised during the consultation about a large 'super' school being overwhelming for the children. Cllr Laura Mayes explained that it will be designed to have "a series of small units on a spacious site" thus giving a small-feel to the school whilst maintaining the advantages of a big school such as full time medical and health care professionals and its own transport. The school should also be able to provide support and options for the 3,500 children - with Educational, Health and Care Plans (EHCP) - who are in mainstream schools. That sort of support is currently completely absent.
A formal consultation now starts, with a final decision to be made by cabinet in March 2019. The council will be looking for an academy partner to run this new school and to provide the support to all mainstream secondary schools in the county. Cllr Laura Mayes has invited parents, governors and teachers to get involved in the design of the new school.
We should get involved and keep a watchful eye on the developing plans for this new school. We need to see that it delivers the right environment for SEND children to thrive. We need to ensure the academy partner chosen is committed to delivering SEND support to all mainstream schools.
We need to ensure that Marlborough's SEND children have the shortest travel times possible. And finally, because the new school is only for children up to the age of 16, we need to ensure that one of the proposed Transition Hubs for post 16 education is close to Marlborough.