Hundreds of additional places for Lancashire pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are set to be created in mainstream schools over the next five years.
Lancashire County Council has revealed plans to install two dozen SEND units at primary and secondary level in an attempt to reduce the proportion of children attending dedicated special schools.
Currently, almost half of young people with SEND in the county are placed within a special school - nearly 10 percent higher than the national average. If Lancashire were closer to the national trend, 600 more pupils would be educated in mainstream facilities.
The proposals - which will now be subject to further consultation - would create 288 additional SEND places within the mainstream sector.
Legislation introduced in 2014 obliges local authorities to operate on the “presumption” that SEND children will attend a non-specialist school.
Speaking after the cabinet meeting where the plans were approved, cabinet member for schools Phillippa Williamson said that there was a key difference between the facilities being proposed and standalone special schools.
“[The units] are part of the school and school life - and just enable those pupils to have that little bit of extra support . They may join pupils in other parts of the school for some of their lessons - but some of the time they will be in that unit, [where] they get more nurturing support that enables them to thrive in that setting,” County Cllr Williamson said.
However, the authority is also planning to boost the number of places in special schools themselves in the longer term by over 200, again subject to consultation - almost half of which would come from an 88-pupil expansion of Sir Tom Finney Community High in Preston. More immediately, 14 extra secondary school places are to be created in the south of the county.
Papers presented to cabinet described council-run special schools as “largely full” - and predicted an increase in demand of almost a quarter by the middle of the decade. More than 370 SEND pupils are educated in independent or non-maintained schools - costing County Hall £17m during 2018/19.
Current demand is highest in the south and east of the county in areas including Preston, Leyland, Accrington and Burnley - and the additional places are expected to bridge any future shortfall in those locations.
But there are currently no primary special school places at all in the north of the county for youngsters with social, emotional and mental health needs. Cabinet members heard that provision of all types of special school place in that part of the region will require “further work to secure a solution”.
A forecast funding gap next year of £13m in Lancashire’s “high needs block”, which pays for SEND education, has now been covered by a one-off government grant. But the black hole is set to re-open within five years - when it will total £25m.
County Cllr Williamson said the situation was “a challenge”.
“We’ve received £17m this year - it enables us to meet all our requirements and actually increase the funding we’re giving to SEND pupils over the next 12 months.
“Our new strategy will help us address some of [the longer-term deficit], but we will be talking to government to explain the challenges we are particularly facing within Lancashire and working towards being able to meet those - and, crucially, meet the needs of the children and young people we want to support and give them the best possible educational experience we can.”
As well as the investment in Sir Tom Finney, the county council is planning to establish: an additional 60 places by moving Broadfield Specialist College to the Hameldon School site; an additional 16 places in Lancaster by adding a modular building to the Stepping Stones Short Stay School; an additional 30 primary special school places for pupils with social, emotional and mental health needs in Thornton-Cleveleys, using empty classrooms in the unoccupied Haven School site; and an additional 30 secondary places at the same location. All of the capital projects will be subject to a feasibility study.
The combined SEND programme announced today is estimated to cost £10m, with £3.5m coming from a government grant for SEND capital projects and the rest from within the County Hall budget.