A series of drastic cuts which will see millions of pounds slashed or redistributed from schools for high needs students across North Yorkshire has been approved by the county authority.
In an emotional full meeting of council, councillors heard appeals from both staff and parents tied to Harrogate's Grove Academy, one of the Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) which now faces a 56 per cent reduction to its funding over the next three years, starting from April.
Among them was Natalie Astwood, a parent of a student attending the Grove, who said opponents of the cuts "can not shout any louder about this injustice".
“Without the Grove my daughter's life chances will be significantly reduced," she said, adding that it was "quite frankly ridiculous to assume" that her child could re-assimilate into a mainstream school.
In response, executive member for education and skills, Coun Patrick Mulligan, said they were determined to "reshape the model of Alternative Provision (AP)" so high needs students could access it at an earlier stage in an attempt to reduce exclusion from mainstream schools.
"We know that once a child has been excluded some schools are very reluctant to readmit and therefore they remain in the PRS long term with little accountability from home schools," he said.
"If this current model continues, we will continue to have excluded children out of mainstream provision...A model of AP that can be accessed by schools at an early stage will mean they can retain young people on a personalised curriculum."
Two attempts to reduce the immediate impacts of the cut - one proposed by the minority Liberal Democrat contingent, and the other by the similarly sized Labour Party - were both resoundingly defeated.
Labour's proposal was for the planned 50 per cent reduction in discretionary funding to still go ahead from April, but for a £1m buffer to be introduced to support PRUs who wanted to work with the council over the following year.
It was heavily rejected, receiving a smattering of support from Labour and independents, before the Liberal Democrats tabled their own version.
Councillor Geoff Webber (Lib Dem) moved the amendment to have the 50 per cent reduction in discretionary funding pushed back to April 2020, rather than this year, saying it was "unfair and impractical" to impose the change in the next five weeks.
He acknowledged the needed to change the model of education provision due to budget constraints, but added that he would "beg" his colleagues to vote for the amendment to provide time for the schools to adjust.
"There simply hasn't been sufficient notice for the PRUs to adapt and other alternative provision does not yet exist," Coun Webb said.
However it too was soundly rejected, with the original motion passed soon after.
The changes to the High Needs Budget are centred around a three-pronged approach by NYCC to claw back a £5.5m overspend due to Government underfunding.
This includes the cutting of £2.7m of ‘discretionary’ funding of the High Needs budget.
A portion of that 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.
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.
Save the PRS campaign group and Grove Academy teacher Alex Boyce said after the meeting he expected the cuts to have an immediate impact on the Grove and other PRUs, with staff likely to leave swiftly in the search for more secure employment as funding declines.
"But once you lose the staff, you lose the school," he said, adding that many of the workforces had taken years to assemble.
He also took aim at the councillors sitting on the council, who he said had "chosen to ignore the opinion of education professionals and of the public".
"They have voted through rushed cuts to the Pupil Referral Service that will only widen the cracks in the education," he said.
"This will increase the likelihood of our most vulnerable children falling out of schooling and into ill health, abuse and even criminality."
Their hopes now rest with a legal challenge lodged with the council by a parent of a student of Grove Academy.
Law firm Simpson Millar have submitted a letter before action which has signalled their intent to press for a judicial review on the council's decision, based on the lack of alternative education available and the duty of care the council has for special education students.
Following the meeting, council leader Carl Les said the budget decisions were made against a backdrop of plans to deliver £26m in savings over the next three years with a further £14m still to find following years of underfunding by the Government.
“What we are seeing now is unprecedented demand in two key areas of our work – looking after vulnerable adults and providing for children with higher needs. I'm grateful to our MPs who have taken up this cause, and for Ministers who have listened and provided extra funds this year," Coun Les said.
He added that he hoped these demands were recognised in the next Comprehensive Spending Review, with a fairer redistribution of funding based on the costs of delivering services in a rural county.
"North Yorkshire has a reputation nationally for its top quality and innovative services and sound financial management," he said.
"We will continue to do the best we can for our communities, to deliver good education and social care for young and old, to keep the county on the move and support economic growth.”
Lachlan Leeming, Local Democracy Reporting Service