Relentless demand for special needs school places in Central Bedfordshire

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Lots of spaces are being taken by children from other local authority areas

A relentless number of requests for special school places and education health care plan (EHCP) assessments is facing Central Bedfordshire Council, a meeting heard today.

Demand for special educational needs and disability (SEND) provision in Central Bedfordshire is currently 50 per cent higher than last year, which was 50 per cent more than the previous year.

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Places cannot be left unfilled legally to stem any sudden increases in demand, CBC's children's services overview and scrutiny committee was told.

Parents demostrated outside Central Beds Council headquarters ahead of a meetingParents demostrated outside Central Beds Council headquarters ahead of a meeting
Parents demostrated outside Central Beds Council headquarters ahead of a meeting

The local authority met its special school statutory duty for places in mid-February, but has been inundated with subsequent requests.

This is partly because of improvements being made following a critical Ofsted/Care Quality Commission report.

It found "significant areas of weakness in the local practice" requiring a written statement of action from CBC and BLMK Clinical Commissioning Group.

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Deputy council leader and executive member for families, education and children Sue Clark told the committee: "One of the complications is the system itself.

"We have to anticipate what the demand is going to be for special school places," she explained.

"There's a date to meet our statutory duty by which is February 15. Unfortunately it's a continual process.

"After that date, new children become known to us. EHCPs get completed, people move into the area and some families decide not to home educate any more.

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"The complication arises in two ways, as local authorities cannot hold special school places open, which is against the law.

"If a school has spaces it fills them from other local authority areas. They can't hold them open for us.

"It's a delicate balance. If we have an excess of provision other children fill those places.

"With the Schools for the Future programme we hope to predict more accurately than we've been able to this year," she added.

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"We've enough special school places in Central Bedfordshire to meet the demand, but quite a lot of those spaces are filled by children from other local authority areas."

Councillor Clark said "tailored support" is being put in place for the children waiting for special school places.

"This will assist them in their current school setting or at home in the best way we can.

"Since the February cut off date around 100 pupils who need special school places have been identified.

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"I'm glad we've found places for just over half in special schools and our officers are doing everything they can to make as many places available as quickly as possible.

"We're investing over £6.5m to create 100 new special school places, but unfortunately demand is outstripping supply.

"We've recently completed the biggest listening exercise we've ever done on special school places and this will help us better match demand with supply.

"We'll use this to get it right going forwards. We need to do more. I met the council leader Conservative Arlesey councillor Richard Wenham and chief executive Marcel Coiffait last week to request extra help.

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"I understand that it isn't being felt comprehensively and coherently across our whole SEND community."

Deputy director of children's services Sarah Ferguson said: "We want to make sure what we offer and what we're providing parents we've great confidence about.

"It's really important we work with parents to understand what good looks like, beyond the obvious one where children have a place at the time when they need it.

"We continue to be committed to working with the parent community to understand what that's like."