Since the end of last year, the future of a Harrogate school has been hanging in the balance - but this month councillors from across the county will decide its fate.
The Grove Academy in Harrogate is one of five Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) which takes students who have been permanently excluded or cannot be taught in mainstream schools.
These ‘short stay’ specialist schools are funded by North Yorkshire County Council’s High Needs budget.
But the £44 million pot, which serves to educate some of North Yorkshire’s most vulnerable, complex and disadvantaged children is ‘woefully underfunded’.
Director of Children’s Services at NYCC Stuart Charlton said: “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.”
To remedy that, NYCC have looked at the Pupil Referral Service (PRS) and last October, the authority published proposals to take away all of its ‘discretionary’ funding, which accounts for £2.7m of the High Needs budget.
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.
A portion of the discretionary money saved - £771,000 - will be reallocated into a new scheme which will focus on preventing permanent exclusions from mainstream schools in the first place.
But teachers claim it still isn’t enough time to transition, and questions have been raised for the future of students currently in the PRS.
Parents and staff at the Grove Academy have been fighting the proposals, claiming that such ‘scathing’ cuts to their service will mean ‘forced closure’.
Teachers at the Grove have criticised the council for scrutinising the finances of the PRS, and instead they point to the financial management of the special needs school, Forest Moor.
Grove Academy Teacher, Chris Kitson, said: “I think all of the cuts happening now are a legacy of poor decisions that were made in the past.”
Between 2011 and 2013 the council shut down two of its special schools; Balliol School in Sedburgh and Netherside School near Grassington.
Both schools were rated by Ofsted as ‘good’ with outstanding qualities when they were closed, but their replacement was not up to scratch.
The council opened the Foremost School (now Forest Moor) at a former naval base in Darley, which has been plagued with problems to this day.
In the last financial year Forest Moor’s deficit has doubled to nearly £1m and the school continues to be rated as requiring improvement by Ofsted.
Former Head of Netherside, Morris Charlton, said: “I’m no longer able to keep up with how many headteachers they have had but I know they have changed the governing body again.
“It’s very frustrating to watch and very disappointing. It should be able to work, it should be made to work and it should be successful.
“I think all of the staff that have worked there have come away disillusioned, disappointed and somewhat degraded by their experiences there.
He added: “I don’t think these problems are solved by simply throwing money at it.”
Head of English at the Grove Academy and leader of the SaveThePRS campaign, Alex Boyce, said: “The money for Forest Moor comes out of the High Needs budget so it is part of the same issue because if Forest Moor continues to be a black hole the way it has been, that money has been lost, and we are paying the consequences.
“They might argue that it’s not direct cause and effect but the council hasn’t managed the High Needs budget very well.
“Of course it would be lovely if central government gave more money to the High Needs budget but the council need to have better managed what they have and Forest Moor is an example of that.”
Adding to their frustration, teachers at the Grove have highlighted that in the 2017-18 financial year, the council spent nearly £8m on ‘independent’ special needs places for just 136 children.
Mr Kitson continued: “They are sending kids out of the county that they would have been able to cater for before the calamatous decision they they made to shut down two special schools that were successful, and then pumping money into a flawed project.”
But Mr Carlton defended the council’s decision to close Netherside and Balliol, adding that all authorities have similar spending figures on independent special needs places.
He said: “You are talking about something that was several years before the 2014 family reforms. You’re not a mind reader.
“You can’t be judged on what you don’t know. It’s not a strong argument in terms of how you make financial plans, you can only deal with what you think is in front of you.
He added: “We have had a rapid rise, since 2014, in children with Educational Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) with no increase in the budget and no capital funding to go towards creating extra provision.
“We are trying to do what we can. We have a bid in with the DfE for a new special school in Selby, we have got out fingers crossed that we get that, but there is not this magic pot of money to suddenly create spaces.”
Addressing the criticism about the state of Forest Moor’s finances, Mr Carlton said: “It’s a bit like judging a football club by one poor signing, things happen.
He added: “This is not about poor management, this is about not enough money in the system.”
NYCC’s Assistant Director for Inclusion Jane le Sage added: “I think it’s easy to say this is where Forest Moor has been, but actually in a very short space of time, we are confident that the vision is strong, that the numbers will grow and that the budget will settle. They had an Ofsted monitoring report a couple of weeks ago and it was acknowledged that the new Executive Head has green roots in terms of moving the school on.”
The council are keen to focus on the positives that change can bring in the future and says it wants to develop a new model of alternative provision for permanently excluded children.
Ms le Sage said: “ Throughout the consultation on the proposals, I spoke to quite a lot of parents and young people. Some of the benefits they saw in the PRS were small groups, high levels of support, and staff that they felt that they could talk to if they felt they had some issues.
“Our vision would be that is a requirement across all of our schools, actually to have the support that a young person requires - instead of focusing all of the resources up at the end of the permanent exclusion.”
Since the original proposals were published, NYCC has slowed down the pace of the main cut, agreeing to pay 50 per cent of the discretionary funding from April 2019 to September 2020.
But Harrogate County Councillor, Geoff Webber, (Lib Dem) has said he will be asking NYCC to delay the cuts by another year, and fund the service using £1.4m in council reserves until then.
He said: “I’m sorry to see this happening at all but realistically the government are not giving us enough money for the service, so if we balance the books it has to be cut.
“My particular concern is that we give the PRUs enough time to reorganise so that they can continue to to provide a service after the cuts, albeit a different one to what they provide now.”
Coun Webber said the money could come from reserves or from a government ‘rural grant’ of £1.6m.
He will put forward his motion at the full council meeting on February 20.