SAVE St Nicholas Special Needs School!!

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Wiltshire Council proposes to CLOSE three special needs schools in our county, including St Nicholas School in Chippenham, in a drastic move to merge them into one remote purpose-built facility.
 
We say: DON’T CLOSE ST NICHOLAS SCHOOL!! Don’t segregate our children with special needs in a mega school far away from their community! Keep our specialist schools local!


In a time when we are striving to be inclusive and embrace diversity, it appears not 'everybody matters'. Wiltshire Council's Vision for Special Education in Wiltshire is misguided, uninformed and outdated, and does not adequately address the SEN crisis in our county. It does not have the best interests of children with special needs and disabilities at heart and it takes us back to the dark days of institutionalisation in the name of budget efficiencies, keeping our children out of sight and mind, shut away from their communities. It also flies in the face of NICE guidelines and research evidence.


Every child deserves the chance to be educated and valued in their own community, including learning life skills by making trips to the local shops and parks, supermarkets and church services, all of which St Nicholas students now enjoy. These life learning experiences are even more vital for children with special needs, who face not only the challenges of education but also of their inclusion into the community. The school has worked hard to forge strong links to local schools, some of which their siblings attend, who host St Nicholas sports days, include our children in their events and visit for work experience. Students at St Nicholas are at the heart of our community and having a special needs school local promotes social inclusion. This has a direct effect on their futures as adults, and is an essential part of an ongoing social process. They will not have these opportunities at a rural mega school. Please don’t rip them away.


Parents of children with special needs deserve to have a choice of schools to send their children, just as parents of children at mainstream schools do. What options would be available if a child doesn’t meet the criteria of the merged mega school, doesn’t have his/her needs met by the school, or if the school has poor leadership or goes into Special Measures? This idea reverts to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ education that is the reason children with special needs cannot attend mainstream settings; already many parents have had to fight to send their children with SEN out of county as the schools in Wiltshire were not suitable. One mega school further removes choice for parents.


No child should have to spend hours on a bus to go to school each day.  Although travel from Chippenham and surrounding areas to the proposed site may only take 20 minutes on a good day, by the time multiple stops to collect other children, including some in wheelchairs, are taken into account, this can take upwards of one-and-a-half hours each way. That’s 3 hours a day for a child as young as 4! This will break best practice for maximum travel times for all but a few local children. Excessive journey times can cause greater risk to the health of children who are already vulnerable, for instance inducing seizures for those with epilepsy, which can limit access to school and be detrimental to their cognitive development. The remote location may also impact on students’ health as it is further away from the A&E departments at RUH Bath and GWH Swindon, with rural roads to traverse, rather than the quickly to access M4 near Chippenham and St Nicholas school. Many of the students at St Nicholas have complex health needs. What's more, the logistics for staff and parents with other children or who work, may find it difficult to access the remote school or be forced to give up work simply to take their child to school. 

Every child deserves an appropriate education, and for those attending St Nicholas, this means in a smaller setting, with small class ratios, and teachers, staff and health professionals who know individual students and make them feel part of a family. Many will not be able to cope with a huge, impersonal setting, encountering hundreds of strangers’ faces each day, possibly a large and noisy hall for dining and assemblies, crowded and overwhelming corridors, or an expansive car park where they will use up their energy getting across, sometimes in adverse weather, just to reach the entrance.


All of these factors create potential barriers to education for children with special needs,whose circumstances already mean that the process of education is challenging for them. The requirement for local, easily accessible special needs schools is therefore all the greater.

As Lady Hale, President of the UK Supreme Court, says: 'A denial of access which would have no long term impact upon an ordinary pupil may be catastrophic for a pupil with special needs.', A Appellant v Essex County Council and National Autistic Society Intervener 2010 UKSC 33.

The lack of specialist school provision in Wiltshire County has reached crisis point and we need MORE schools to address this problem, not fewer. What’s more, the proposed site’s numbers do not add up.

Wiltshire Council says the mega school will host 350 students to meet the 220 extra spaces they say are needed.

We say:

  • Current figures for the three schools earmarked for closure show a combined total of 278 students (Rowdeford School 130 students, Larkrise in Trowbridge 83 under 16, and St Nicholas 65 under 16). 
  • Where do the other 178 children go? Will they be forced back into mainstream schools, overburdening already stretched school budgets without specialist resources or specially trained staff? 
  • How does this future-proof specialist provision for children with SEN in Wiltshire if it will already be over capacity the moment it is built?


Wiltshire Council states that the buildings at St Nicholas are past their prime and out of date.

We say:

  • The same could be said of a lot of mainstream schools in Wiltshire. 
  • Invest money in updating the current buildings, build an add-on site to St Nicholas in Chippenham to create a tri-site campus with Poplar College, or build an additional special needs school where there is need, local to those children.
  • St Nicholas benefits from an on-site hydrotherapy pool, which is also open to the public, and was built from funds raised together by the community and RAF Lyneham. 


The council say that this ‘isn’t about money’ and that ‘the investment means we are committing more to special education needs. less’. sic

We say:

  • They haven’t clarified where the £20 million investment is coming from; will it be from an increase in Council Tax and for whom?
  • If it means accessing a central government pot, is it purely for capital investment (ie the modern facility), and not for paying the ongoing salaries of specially trained staff and full-time medical professionals onsite? How is that investing in SEN students’ ongoing education? Will the funds from the sale of the closed schools be put straight back into special education in Wiltshire, or is this a guise to help with budget constraints?
  • Who will be responsible for maintaining the facility and its overheads? How will turning it into an academy benefit our children? 


The council says ‘This vision is based on three years of consultation with families, schools and communities’.

We say:

  • Current families of St Nicholas School say they have only been consulted in July 2018.
  • Input and involvement from families, schools and communities about what sort of education environment, facilities and resources are best for our children with special needs has blatantly been ignored.


Wiltshire Council says the new site will provide hydro-pools, sensory rooms, physio, open outdoor space, speech and language therapy, family care.

We say:

  • These features are already on offer at St Nicholas School, including sensory rooms, a hydro-pool, equine therapy, trampoline therapy and music therapy.
  • Families can already access health professionals in one place, including Speech and Language, Paediatric appointments and Occupational Therapy.


Wiltshire Council’s drastic proposed plans for Special Education in Wiltshire raises serious concerns, including:

  1. No mention of post-16 provision and the future of Poplar College in Chippenham, which caters for young people with special needs up to the age of 19. There is little to no adult provision in Wiltshire, so will students from St Nicholas now be denied the chance to continue their education after 16, while their mainstream peers are offered to continue theirs, reducing their life chances and positive outcomes?
  2. Job losses and poor retention of specially trained teachers, health professionals and support staff who already know our children and their needs, some of whom live locally to St Nicholas and will be unable to travel to the remote location.
  3. No reassurances that small class ratios will remain, in order to ensure an individual education tailored to the learning and health needs of each child.
  4. No reassurances that the same level of care from health professionals will remain or increase. For instance, employing one full-time Speech and Language Therapist would not be adequate for 350 students.
  5. The disruption of the proposed merger and transition will last for years and cause damage to current children’s emotional and mental wellbeing, which could have a long-term impact.
  6. The proposed site has poor transport links (no train station, limited public transport and located on a rural road not equipped to deal with the influx of traffic). While children will be transported to and from school by the local authority, parents who depend on public transport will find it difficult to attend meetings with teachers and specialists, or to collect their children if they are ill. What’s more, the location is very near an area at risk of flooding.

 

We understand that council budgets are being squeezed, with little help from central government and being unable to increase council taxes by too much, but this is the wrong approach to solving the special needs crisis in our county and creating a legacy for our SEN children.

While a purpose-built school with state-of-the-art equipment does have potential if planned well, architects often do not consult the end user, and there is little-to-no faith left amongst families, schools and the community that their input and involvement, and the needs of children with special needs and disabilities, will be put first when designing the build, given that our contributions to the consultation in July were so obviously ignored or over-written.

By all means, build more schools for special education; we've been crying out for this for years. Build an add-on site to St Nicholas elsewhere in Chippenham and separate them into primary and secondary education; build a small school in Westbury or Devizes to meet the needs of local children and provide more choice. We need MORE schools, not fewer! 

This petition aims to ensure our voices are heard, highlight the huge amount of uncertainty and misgivings felt by the public concerning Wiltshire Council’s proposals, suggest alternative solutions and demonstrate that St Nicholas special needs school is valued by the community and will not go down without a fight!

Please support us and SAVE St Nicholas special needs school in Chippenham!

Ways YOU can help:
Write to your MP, lobby your local councillors, share our petition on social media.

Join our protest outside County Hall, Trowbridge, on the morning of 27 November!



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