A Harrogate school which educates some of the district's most at-risk youth faces closing by Christmas due to funding cuts, education unions have warned.
Harrogate's Grove Academy, a pupil referral unit which teaches children with learning and behavioural difficulties, is one of the institutions impacted by North Yorkshire County Council's decision earlier this year to rejig its high needs education budget.
The Grove maintains the changes amount to a 65 per cent cut to its funding over the next year, while the county states it is actually a 56 per cent reduction spread over three years.
"As a result of this cut in funding the Grove Academy is now facing closure by Christmas," a joint statement from UNISON, the National Education Union and NASUWT stated this week.
The statement stated that "unless all parties come together and support an alternative plan", the academy would face closure.
"North Yorkshire County Council must support the PRU in the interim...until other arrangements can be put in place, or all the expertise and facilities will be lost," the unions said.
Their warning comes as staff members at the academy took strike action on Thursday (June 13) in a bid to draw attention to their plight.
Head teacher at the Grove, John Warren, said taking strike action was a "difficult decision" for staff at the academy, but that that they had "been forced to take such a drastic step to get their voice heard".
"Staff, parents and other professionals are deeply concerned at the impact of these cuts and fear Harrogate will be left with a black hole of alternative provision for the most needy children if the Grove is unable to continue," he said.
The funding changes are part of a move by the authority to claw back a £5.5m overspend in the high needs sector which will see funds to PRUs slashed, with a portion redirected to mainstream schools tasked with preventing exclusions of students in the first place.
North Yorkshire's corporate director for the children and young people’s service, Stuart Carlton, said earlier this year the authority faced a “critical funding shortfall” due to Government underfunding.
“Evidence shows that children and young people who are permanently excluded suffer in terms of educational outcomes and life chances. So wherever possible we believe they should remain within mainstream education, in their local school with the right support and curriculum to meet their needs,” he said.
The council will spend £11.6m of its own money over the next three years in the high needs block.
However, Richard Sheriff executive head teacher at Harrogate Grammar School who also president of the association of school and college leaders, expressed concerns over the potential loss of a PRU as exclusions rise.
"The assertion that reducing exclusions will mean we don't need PRUs or alternative provision is unrealistic," he said.
Mr Sheriff, who is also president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said his experience on the national body gave him a broad understanding of the challenges local authorities face in education funding.
However, he voiced his worries that there would be adequate provision for former PRU students re-entering the mainstream system.
"There's concerns the amount of money redirected to (mainstream) schools will be highly inadequate to cover the provision of high needs education requirements," he said.
"I think I can speak for other heads when I say that I'm extremely concerned about the loss of a PRU in harrogate at a time when there is a rising need."
In a statement, North Yorkshire's assistant director of inclusion for children and young people’s services, Jane Le Sage said: “We recognise the negative impact of exclusion on educational attainment, life chances and increased vulnerability of young people.
“We remain committed to reducing the numbers of permanent exclusions across the county by ensuring schools have access to high quality, alternative provision for young people, who will benefit from a more personalised curriculum and higher levels of support.
“Over the past several months we have been working successfully with secondary and Pupil Referral Unit Headteachers to finalise new models of alternative provision from September 2020. We do not anticipate the closure of any of the four other maintained Pupil Referral Services in North Yorkshire and, indeed, they remain at the centre of our vision to reduce exclusions but with a focus on early intervention to support children and young people.
“Funding to the Pupil Referral Service in North Yorkshire has reduced by £796,000 in 2019/20 when compared to 2018/19, not taking into account the significant financial reserves in a number of the Pupil Referral Units.
“The new alternative provision models are based on funding of £18,000 a year from the local authority per place - in line with national average - together with a small contribution from schools.
“This will be sufficient to provide a strong curriculum, together with work-related opportunities, vocational provision and an enhanced therapeutic offer.
“Any decision regarding the future of the Grove lies with Delta Multi Academy Trust and the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) with the final decision taken by Ministers.
“We have not been notified formally of closure intentions from December 2019 and are in active discussion with the Chief Officer from Delta and the RSC to explore a range of options to secure the future of an alternative provision model serving the Harrogate area.
“We are disappointed we have not made progress in developing the new Alternative Education model in Harrogate under the new funding arrangements and would strongly urge the school and Pupil Referral Service leaders to work with us to finalise arrangements for future provision.
“We understand that our decision to reduce the funding allocation to Pupil Referral Services has not been popular, but historically these providers have been very generously funded with place costs being higher than other specialist schools in the county.
“However, pressures on the high needs block funding for children and young people with SEND means that we are unable to continue to fund over and above the national average and remain confident that the new alternative provision models will provide cost efficiency and continue to provide high quality provision and support for young people."
Lachlan Leeming, Local Democracy Reporter