Kent County Council opens Special Schools Review for parents to respond to address shortage of special needs places

Plans to drastically scale back the number of children eligible for special needs school places in Kent have been described as ‘terrifying’ by worried families.

While 9,000 children in the county are reportedly awaiting an autism assessment alone, Kent County Council has now revealed proposals to address what it says is an over-reliance on special school placements.

Thousands of children in Kent remain on waiting lists for autism assessments. Image: iStock.
Thousands of children in Kent remain on waiting lists for autism assessments. Image: iStock.

Amid a £174 million deficit in SEND spending as of March, education chiefs have set out ideas to ‘redesignate’ some of the county’s special schools, which it says are full but ‘not necessarily with children who have the most complex needs’.

The overhaul would change the admissions guidance - or criteria - which steers who may be considered for a place, with a focus in future on giving spaces to pupils only with the most severe and complex special educational needs.

Children whose special needs don’t meet that criteria would likely be directed towards mainstream school places instead.

It’s a plan that has shocked parents, education experts and some schools - with one academy chief executive labelling the move as ‘damaging’.

Education chiefs have unveiled new ideas for the future of Kent’s state-funded special needs schools
Education chiefs have unveiled new ideas for the future of Kent’s state-funded special needs schools

A more ‘financially sustainable’ system

In defending its plans, the council says it’s ‘important’ that the authority develops ‘a more financially sustainable SEN system’.

In consultation papers it explains: “Special school places should be planned to provide education for children with the most complex levels of special educational need. However, over time Kent has become over-reliant on special school placements, both state-funded and private.

“This has led to the placement of some children in a special school, whose educational attainment levels are similar to or above that of children in mainstream schools, and whose needs could be met in mainstream schools.

“This also means that in Kent, we have more special schools and more children in special schools (private and statefunded) than other comparable local authorities.”.

If agreed, the plans would take effect from September 2026 and apply to all pupils seeking a special school placement from that date.

Children already enrolled in a special school come 2026, says KCC, would stay where they are.

However, says the authority, their needs and the ongoing suitability of their place would be revisited each year in the annual review of their Education, Health and Care Plan as it is currently. Although some fear, amid changing criteria, this might prove to be the trigger for transferring children with less severe needs back into mainstream schools.

Critics of the proposals call them ‘ludicrous’ and argue Kent needs more specialist provision, not plans to offer less.

There are also questions as to how already stretched and under-pressure mainstream schools - particularly secondaries - will be able to cater for more pupils often with very unique needs.

Joanna Hillcock as three sons with very individual needs. Photo: Joanna Hillcock.
Joanna Hillcock as three sons with very individual needs. Photo: Joanna Hillcock.

Joanna Hillcock from West Malling has three boys Leo, aged seven, Luca, 11 and Oliver, 13, who are all neurodivergent. Two currently have an EHCP in place.

While all academically able, Joanna says each of her children, in their own way, require additional help and support which most mainstream schools aren’t equipped to offer.

Sensory issues around food, clothing, noise and changes to their environment or routine are among some of the significant challenges her sons experience.

At times, she reveals, her young family has been at ‘breaking point’ as a result of managing each of the three children’s unique and demanding needs.

Her middle son suffers such debilitating anxiety and overwhelm that an assistance dog was introduced with the help of charity Tree of Hope to try and help him face the outside world.

She explained: “This is not the schools’ fault. But changing designations for schools, lumping kids together, it won’t work.

“KCC is just trying to save money. We all know why they are doing this.”

Assistance dog Bailey joined the Hillcock family to help support son Luca. Image: Joanna Hillcock.
Assistance dog Bailey joined the Hillcock family to help support son Luca. Image: Joanna Hillcock.

The mum-of-three acknowledges that to outsiders it may appear her offspring could attend mainstream settings but that - like for so many children like them - couldn’t be further from the truth.

Everything from their mental health to their school attendance, she says, would be affected by the type of change KCC is considering.

She added: “I don’t think KCC realises how all of this affects families.

“Every child has a right to an education but they don’t all fit in the same box.”

Her thoughts are echoed by Lisa Lloyd from Aylesford whose two children Poppy, 7, and Fin, 11, are both autistic.

She said these proposals will hit hardest youngsters she describes as the ‘in-between’ children - whose needs aren’t severe enough for an SEN school but who simply won’t cope in mainstream.

“I’m terrified. I’m absolutely terrified,” she explained.

Lisa Lloyd
Lisa Lloyd

“You’re going to be writing off all of these children. What will this mean for them?

“It’s all coming down to money. They don’t understand about our children’s needs. They don’t see the fight to try and get our children the correct educational setting.

“The trauma could be horrific.”

Impact on mainstream schools

Lisa, who is a founding member of the group SEND Reform insists it’s not the fault of mainstream schools and children there will be affected by such significant policy changes too.

She added: “The poor teachers, they are overworked and under paid already. The whole education system is broken.

“They cannot teach how they should be. And mainstream children will be disrupted by this as well.”

There are questions about how already-stretched mainstream schools can cater for more special needs pupils? Image: iStock.
There are questions about how already-stretched mainstream schools can cater for more special needs pupils? Image: iStock.

The cost of sending children with special educational needs to private schools has tripled in the past five years, an expert on the subject claimed last month.

Peter Read, a former grammar school head, says figures from a Freedom of Information request show the cost of such provision was £28m in 2019 and soared to £84m in 2022-23.

Mr Read believes the problem though, is “not fixable”, with the fallout from the pandemic also now contributing to the significant difficulties some children are experiencing.

“There are still children who as a result of Covid have serious long- term mental health conditions” he added.

Former grammar school head Peter Read
Former grammar school head Peter Read

One mum, with a teenage daughter with special needs, says for those likely to be steered towards mainstream settings consequences could be far-reaching.

Asking to remain anonymous, she said: “I know children that are absolutely not suited to a mainstream school

“There is no suggestion in there they they will support or fund the mainstream schools to do this. There’s no money in education.

“You are not going to have these children turning up in a mainstream school every day.

“It shouldn’t be coming down to money when you are talking about these children’s health and well being.”

Specialist teacher and mum-of-two Hayley Forest runs Forest Autism Support.

An expert in autism spectrum disorder, she works privately with families to assess children and adults experiencing social and communication difficulties either at home or school.

She fears KCC’s plans will ultimately take more children away from classrooms.

Hayley Forest from Forest Autism Support fears more children will ultimately end up not coming to school
Hayley Forest from Forest Autism Support fears more children will ultimately end up not coming to school

She explained: “The plans are ludicrous. It will push more children to be homeschooled and increase the number of children who will have Emotionally Based School Avoidance.

“There aren’t enough places as it is. We need more specialist provision not less. Mainstream schools are pushed to breaking point.

“If the system is going to change then there needs to be a huge funding drive into mainstream schools to cut class sizes, increase and train staff, provide resources, interventions - the list is endless.

“We will actually be putting some very vulnerable children at risk and I just can’t see how on earth this will work.”

Hayley says uprooting any child, settled in a specialist provision, could also have a lasting impact.

She explained: “What about the children already in a specialist provision who then don’t meet the new criteria, will they be moved? This will be so damaging for their emotional well being and education.

“The impacts of this proposal are so far reaching.”

There is concern too among those responsible for both mainstream and special needs schools in the county.

Leigh Academies Trust cares for more than 20,000 students through its primary and secondary schools and two ‘outstanding’ special needs academies Milestone and Snowfields.

The trust also received approval in May from the Department for Education to open a new SEN school in Swanley

In a three-page letter to families - seen by KentOnline - chief executive Simon Beamish explains KCC’s ideas have spurred him to take the ‘unusual step’ of writing to parents directly.

Simon Beamish. Picture: LAT.
Simon Beamish. Picture: LAT.

Describing proposals he thinks are ‘damaging’, Mr Beamish claims consultation with special school heads has so far been ‘superficial’ and he fears that if cohorts do change to only those with the most complex needs it will have ‘a serious impact’ on the trust’s ability to meet the needs of some existing pupils.

The Kent Special Educational Needs Trust that represents all special school heads in Kent has also written to KCC to oppose the ideas, says Mr Beamish in his letter.

His writes: “From 2026 when the changes take effect it will be more difficult to achieve a place in a special school in Kent: a much higher proportion of pupils who might previously have been eligible for a special school place will be sent to mainstream school.”

And he then adds: “These proposals assume that all pupils working at broadly ‘age-related expectations’ should attend and can be successful in a mainstream school, regardless of other diagnoses. This is not the case.”

KCC says a child or young person would only be placed in a mainstream school if it is satisfied that ‘adequate and suitable provision’ can be provided to meet the child’s special educational needs.

Concerned parents however, dispute how this could be assessed thoroughly enough in each individual case considering the number of children likely to be affected.

Critics fear the plans will ultimately stop some children from coming to school. Image: iStock.
Critics fear the plans will ultimately stop some children from coming to school. Image: iStock.

Full time teacher Mandy Cook is founder of Autism South East, based in north Kent, creator of The Autistic Teacher on Facebook with a 124,000 global following, former chairperson of The National Autistic Society Dartford and Gravesham and has four children - three of which have been diagnosed autistic.

She says KCC’s review is of ‘great concern’ and shows ‘complete disregard’ for neurodivergent children who struggle or can’t cope in mainstream classrooms due to sensory overwhelm, high anxiety or communication challenges but who are academically able.

She explained: “I would agree that there are children across Kent with severe and complex needs who desperately need places in special schools and that provision needs to be made, but I do not think that this is the way to do it.

“You can not just deny one group to support another. They are just moving the problem.

“I hope that the voices and concerns of families we support will be heard during this consultation so that we can amend the proposal with a better understanding of the needs of neurodivergent children.”

Last September more than 100 parents and teachers from across Kent staged a protest outside County Hall to fight against what they said was a lack of provision for children with special needs, including insufficient spaces in special needs schools and a lack of SEND training for teachers and teaching assistants in mainstream schools.

SEND Reform, which campaigns to ensure all children with special educational needs and disabilities have access to education in a setting that can meet their needs, says it will now look at organising another demonstration to fight these new plans.

Responding to the consultation

Anyone wishing to have their say on the Special Schools Review must do so before Wednesday, July 31.

For parents and carers who want to hear more about the proposals in greater detail - KCC is hosting a series of online forum events between now and July 22 the details of which can be found here.

Once the consultation closes feedback will be presented to the Children, Young People and Education Cabinet Committee in the autumn before any final decision is made.

KCC’s Corporate Director for Children, Young People and Education, Sarah Hammond, insists the council’s aim is to prepare those with the most severe needs for adult life.

She said: “Our aim is to prepare children and young people with severe and complex special educational needs for adulthood by providing a special school place as close to their local community as possible.

“By designating our schools, we can make sure they have trained staff, special resources and facilities to reflect the type of need they support.

“We want to hear from those people whose experience can help shape our approach.”

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