North Yorkshire school praised as blueprint for special education overhaul

Mr Scott with students at the school.
Mr Scott with students at the school.

A North Yorkshire school is being touted as the blueprint for the future of the region's overhauled high needs education system.

As of February, Risedale Sports and Community College in Catterick had gone for six months without a single student being excluded.

It's a notable drop from this time four years ago, when the month of February saw 53 children excluded, for a loss of 173.5 school days.

Rates of students being removed from class have dropped dramatically in that time as well, with 923 removals in February 2016 dropping to 93 in February 2019.

The figures are a major reason why the school has been seen as a prime example of what North Yorkshire County Council is attempting to do with its high needs education budget, which is set for a major restructure after county councillors voted in favour of the move at a meeting last month.

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The restructure, the county council says, has an emphasis on driving down exclusion rates, in a move that will see prevention funding shifted from its pupil referral service shifted to new school partnerships with mainstream schools.

Increasingly education and regional and national leaders are pointing to exclusion as part of a downward spiral for young people, with evidence showing those who are permanently excluded suffer in terms of life outcomes and are more vulnerable to gangs.

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The national trend has prompted Ofsted to judge schools with a high exclusion record critically.

The proposal had been met with fierce resistance, including from Harrogate's Grove Academy, a pupil referral unit which stands to lose 56 per cent of its discretionary funding from the council over the next three years as a result of the decision.

A legal challenge has been lodged with the council by a parent of a student at the academy, with law firm Simpson Millar signalling their intention to press for a judicial review of the council's decision.

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However, North Yorkshire councillors have steadfastly backed the restructure, which have been made with an eye on clawing back a predicted £5.7m overspend in the high needs budget.

“Permanent exclusions have risen significantly, despite our investment in the pupil referral service of over £4.7m each year,” Coun Patrick Mulligan, North Yorkshire’s executive member for education and skills, said.

“The present system is not working.”

Risedale principal Colin Scott said exclusion was only used as a "last resort" by staff at the school.

“It’s so easy for students to become awkward and difficult every time they don’t want to do something if they know we will send them away," he said.

"And it’s so easy for teachers to get rid of a kid from the classroom because they are being disruptive.

“In my mind that disempowers teachers and it sends out the wrong message to students. If a teacher is not skilled to deal with a student and removes them from class that sends the message that they can’t deal with them.

“But here at Risedale we want our young people to know that even if they are giving up on themselves, we are not. Our business is to support them, not remove them. In this school exclusion is the last resort.”

Mr Scott, who has spent 22 years as a special constable with Northumbria Police and doubles as an Ofsted inspector, said reluctance to use exclusion had coincided with improved rates of attendance - which has risen from 91 per cent to 95 from February 2016 to 2019.

“It’s easy for people to think that if you don’t exclude challenging children that behaviour in the school will worsen," Mr Scott said.

“But we have shown that the opposite can be true. Our exclusions last term dwindled to nothing, but our removals from class also dramatically reduced. And attendance is improving markedly. Students here know they are wanted.”

Making the feat more noteworthy is that Risedale is a garrison school, with 50 per cent of students having parents in the Army. Risedale is the 10th school that one student has attended; not an uncommon figure.

The school has also provided a glimpse of what the funding arrangement could potentially mean for other mainstream schools which will be tasked with delivering education to more high needs students.

Mr Scott plans to appoint a deputy head who will oversee alternative provision, with a centre where students with difficulties will be given an intensive curriculum for up to three months.

The curriculum will include English, maths and science but will be tailored to the student’s needs.

The deputy will also oversee the new behaviour policy where exclusion is the last resort. This is for major incidents such as drugs and knife possession.

The appointment of a deputy heads comes courtesy of a much improved financial position; a £300,000 deficit has reduced to £120,000, with the school expected to bring in a surplus during the course of this financial year, courtesy of ballooning student enrolment numbers (there are currently 512 children on the role, which is expected to rise to 540 this year).

It has also enabled the school to invest in curriculum and extra-curricular activity, with trips to France and Germany and a Russian exchange among recent exploits.

It's a successful system of schooling which North Yorkshire County Council is hoping will be replicated across the region.

“As a senior team we are very visible in the school; we move around a lot. Kids know we will challenge them and we nip little things in the bud before they become big things,” Mr Risedale said.