School Shake-Up For Children With Learning Difficulties

Children with learning difficulties and disabilities are to get specialist help closer to home in a radical overhaul of education. The final proposals to revamp special educational needs in Norfolk are aimed at creating an equal spread of schools and resources so children do not have to travel so far to access help.

Norfolk County Council currently spends millions of pounds transporting children across the country to special schools and it hopes the savings made can be ploughed back into the service.

Under the strategy, 12 special schools – soon to be 11 due to a merger in King’s Lynn – will soon be turned into “complex needs schools” while more “specialist resource bases” will be set up at mainstream school sites. Parents and support groups today welcomed the changes and there was widespread support in the public consultation stages.

Asperger East Anglia chief executive Helen Read said: “We welcome the fact they are aiming to ensure there is special provision and to localise that provision. We feel that there should be a range of options for children with Asperger’s syndrome, whether that is a special school or in a specialist unit at a school or even staying at their local school and having some classroom support. We would hope this will try to reduce the amount of travelling that some children have to do at the moment.”

She added that it was imperative school staff were adequately trained to work with children with special educational needs, such as those with Asperger’s.

There are nearly 4,000 children with a statement of special educational needs in Norfolk, with 1,000 attending special schools. Last year, figures showed 142 children were being educated out of Norfolk because provision for their needs was so poor. In 2005, £2.8m was spent on taxis taking pupils to special schools, with some travelling across the entire county.

Phase one of the strategy, from 2007 to 2010, will change special needs schools into “complex needs” school to ensure they all cater for the same age range, from 2 to 19, and for a much wider range of special needs.

There may also be some geographical reorganisation of the schools, as currently five of the schools are based in Norwich and three in the northern area – leaving just three more schools to serve the rest of Norfolk.

There will also be a range of specialist resource bases in schools, to support children and young people with autism, behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, learning difficulties, language difficulties and sensory loss.

Each part of the county will have at least four of these bases at primary school level and three at secondary level. The second phase – if approved – would see the number of specialist bases increasing significantly by 2015.

Partnerships to decide on education packages for each child will be set up and the five local directories of relevant services will be published.

Rosalie Monbiot, cabinet member for children’s services, said: “This will create real choice and flexible options for children and young people with special and additional needs. We are keen to have more even access for people right across Norfolk. I am particularly pleased that better access should mean fewer children having to travel long distances – and fewer children being placed outside the county.”

Members of the children’s services review panel are expected to agree to implement the first part of the strategy when they meet on Wednesday. The views of the review panel on implementing the strategy will be passed on to county council cabinet to help inform their discussions on January 29.