Meet the parents fighting against end of a special educational needs partnership
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“Our children are going to be made educationally homeless.” It’s a despairing message and one that is repeated by several members of a campaign group called SHAME.
An acronym standing for Should Autism Mean Exclusion?, the group was set up by parents of young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), its aim to challenge a decision to cease a post-16 SEND partnership at a mainstream school in Leeds.
“We won’t stop until the decision has been rescinded,” members Charlotte and Karl Ridley say, “and our children are able rightly to continue their education in an environment that they are well established in, enjoy learning and socialising in and are thriving in.”
“Once we finish our own fight, we’ll be forming into a charity,” adds John Pattison, one of the group’s founders. “The aim in the longer term is to push for greater acceptance and integration of autistic kids.”
The majority of the group have children who will be directly impacted when the provision stops this coming July. Those young people are on the roll of the North West Specialist Inclusive Learning Centre (SILC), which provides education for children with a range of special educational needs. They are based in classrooms at Leeds’s Benton Park High School, a mainstream school, under a partnership arrangement known as Meadows Park.
Early last year, parents were notified that the partnership would not continue at post-16 level, though the provision would remain in place for those in years seven to eleven. They were told year 11 pupils and those who would in the future transition through Meadows Park would automatically be offered a place to continue their studies post-16 at Green Meadows, one of the SILC’s specialist schools.
Leeds City Council says there are a range options for post-16 pupils with special educational needs including mainstream sixth forms and colleges, and SILC centres and special schools.
But some parents claim other provision in the area is not suitable for their children’s needs.
“They are making the children educationally homeless,” claims Gina Pattison, one of SHAME’s founders. Her 17-year-old son Jacob is accessing post-16 education at Meadows Park.
“The school provides three important things - access to mainstream pupils, access to a safe, local environment and access to the facilities of a large school,” adds John. “We’ve seen Jacob benefit from being around mainstream children and we know they get a lot from being around children with disabilities too, especially as they have the maturity to see beyond the disabilities.”
Group member Julie Chapman says trying to find an alternative option for her daughter has been the source of much stress. Sixteen-year-old Lucy Peate has Down Syndrome and traits of autism. The family had hoped she could stay at Meadows Park for her post-16 education.
“I feel terrible at the moment,” Julie says. “I am not sleeping at night worrying about what’s going to happen to her in September. It’s so stressful because there’s nothing suitable.”
Julie says her daughter would find it difficult to keep up with the academic work in a mainstream college but would also struggle with the environment of a specialist school. “What she needs is this halfway hub, which is what she’s getting at Meadows Park...There’s a lot of children [at Green Meadows] with behavioural issues,” she claims. “That would affect Lucy. She would end up having a meltdown.”
“I don’t think she’d be able to cope,” she adds. “Anything noisy or any shouting going on, she wouldn’t be able to deal with. She needs to be in a quiet, calm environment and that’s what she gets at Meadows Park.”
The SILC recognises that some pupils at Green Meadows “occasionally can present with challenging and complex behaviour”. But it says the situations are “well-managed” and “dealt with efficiently and effectively”.
Dependent on individual needs, pupils at Meadows Park can access mainstream lessons. “Our son needs support,” Charlotte and Karl explain. “But we want him to be able to be in a mainstream school environment. We want him to be around and socialise with mainstream children.”
“We want education not segregation,” they add. “Our children deserve to have a choice and to have the opportunity to be educated in a mainstream setting.”
For Chris and Hayley Norfolk, Meadows Park provides an environment well-suited to their son Henry, 15, who has ADHD and Asperger’s. “It provides a place that is secure and safe, as well as giving him the chance to mix with mainstream children and to do well academically. Our son is fulfilling his potential and that’s what you want for any child.”
Gina Hudson, whose 16-year-old son Tristan Kilvington attends Meadows Park, says the school is “the only suitable one we have found for him in his life”. “Now it’s Green Meadows or college and that’s not going to be acceptable for us,” she says. “He isn’t going to cope in those situations. It’s worrying at the moment not knowing what’s happening next.”
In a letter sent to parents in March last year, the SILC set out its rationale behind the decision. It said at sixth form level, the learning gap between SILC pupils and their mainstream peers “widens so much that true inclusive opportunities are few and far between” and the benefits of inclusion and social opportunities “lessen as the mainstream students become more independent and adept at widening their social experiences”.
A version attached to a meeting agenda of Leeds City Council’s Children and Families Scrutiny Board last September also said the SILC pupils were ‘guests’ at Benton Park and there was always a chance that working arrangements may change. It said there was a shortage of school places across the country and the head at Benton Park was facing a “bulge year of pupils”.
The council said when school place allocation was finalised, there was not a need for Benton Park to take a bulge in extra pupils. However, the SILC said whilst considering the “potential issue with space”, it reflected on the post-16 offer and said after analysing external accreditation achievements that Green Meadows’ pupils were “outperforming” their peers at Meadows Park.
It has since told The Yorkshire Post that it puts the difference down to the fact post-16 lessons at Green Meadows are taught by a range of subject specialists, whereas at Meadows Park, the class teacher delivers all aspects of the curriculum. And it said it “became clear” that being located at a mainstream school was “not imperative” to prepare young people for adulthood and offer a broad curriculum.
Green Meadows said its post-16 students have the opportunity to mix with ‘mainstream’ students at Leeds City College, which they attend one day each week and have the chance to complete work experience and undertake independent travel training.
“I am really upset about [the decision],” says SHAME member Nicola Davison, whose 14-year-old son Owen has autism and dyspraxia. “I think the way things were done could have been a whole lot better. There was no consultation about it.
“I never spoke to anybody prior to getting that letter...All the parents who have children at Meadows Park are saying how pleased they are with the provision. I don’t understand why they have made the decision to close the post-16 element. We should have the right to have our children educated where they want to be.”
Maura Micklethwaite, whose son Shay formerly accessed post-16 education at Meadows Park, was involved in a campaign to challenge a previous plan to cease its key stage five provision circa 2013. Benton Park said the former head of the SILC was concerned the quality of the curriculum was “not good enough”. It said it understood the SILC proposed that it finish, but later decided it would continue.
“Decisions like this should be made from the bottom up,” Maura says, “not from the top down and behind closed doors. These children are being deprived of their entitlement to a mainstream education by the very people whose job it is to promote inclusion - not support exclusion.”