Campaign to save future of threatened Harrogate school steps up another gear

Head teacher at Grove Academy, John Warren.
Head teacher at Grove Academy, John Warren.

Opponents of "scathing" cuts to North Yorkshire's special education budget are threatening legal action against the county council, as part of a multi-pronged attempt to have the proposals cast aside.

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Law firm Simpson Millar will submit a notice before action letter on behalf of parent Amy Thompson, whose daughter Ellie attends Harrogate's Grove Academy.

The academy is one of the county's five Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) which take in students with complex educational needs who cannot be taught in mainstream schools.

The PRUs face a funding cut of £2.7m as part of proposals by the county council to claw back an overspend of the "woefully underfunded" high needs budget.

The letter outlines the family's intention to press for a judicial review if the council does not set aside the proposals, based on the lack of alternative education available and the duty of care the council has for special education students.

Ms Thompson said she feared to think what would happen to her daughter's education if the cuts forced her out of the Grove.

"I dread to think what the outcome would be," Ms Thompson said.

The legal move comes at the same time as a joint letter opposing the changes and containing the signatures of more than 15 head teachers from mainstream schools across North Yorkshire will be submitted to council.

The letter notes the signees "wish to express, formally, our objection to this proposal", and cites concerns over the speed of the implementation of the new funding arrangements for PRUs, which are suggested to begin in April 2019.

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"We, the undersigned, as headteachers and senior leaders within North Yorkshire, are seriously concerned by the severity of the cuts, the speed of change and the lack of clarity for arrangements post April 2019," it states.

In addition to this, county Councillor Geoff Webber will table a motion requesting for the cuts to be delayed by another year when the proposal is discussed at a full council meeting on February 20.

Coun Webber (Lib Dem) will also request that the service be funded until April 2020 using £1.4m from council reserves, before 50 per cent of the proposed funding reductions are implemented.

In his motion, Coun Webber is set to acknowledge that the council simply doesn't receive enough Government funding to keep up with the demand for special needs education, but says that the cuts shouldn't be made in the upcoming financial year.

"We believe that a 50 per cent reduction in discretionary funding may be appropriate but to introduce this in April 2019 (just over five weeks away) is unfair and impractical," the motion states.

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Changes to the High Needs Budget are centred around a three-pronged approach proposed by NYCC to claw back an overspend of the county's current £44m pot, which is "woefully underfunded" by the Government amid ballooning numbers of students requiring special education.

“It does not meet our needs in North Yorkshire. It is woefully underfunded, it is £6m overspent this year, so quite rightly, the schools forum and local authority are saying we need to be more efficient in the way we spend money,” director of children’s services at NYCC Stuart Charlton said last week.

Among the proposals on the table are the removal of 'discretionary' funding from the Pupil Referral Service, which accounts for £2.7m of the High Needs budget. A portion of that -£771,000 - will be allocated into a new scheme which will focus on preventing permanent exclusions from mainstream schools in the first place.

The council says it will continue to pay its statutory funding at the ‘slightly reduced rate’ of £18,000 per pupil, which it says will bring North Yorkshire’s PRS funding in line with the national average.

Lachlan Leeming, Local Democracy Reporter