Revealed: 7 new SEND free schools for cash-strapped council areas

Ministers also confirm which councils will pilot major SEND reforms under £70m 'change programme'

Ministers also confirm which councils will pilot major SEND reforms under £70m 'change programme'

Seven new special free schools will open in areas with SEND budget black holes, as ministers also confirm which councils will be trialling their green paper reforms.

The Department for Education will now open new 41 special free schools nationwide amid a critical shortage of special school places.

The seven extra schools – totalling over 1,000 places – have been approved through the “safety valve” route, a £1 billion programme where councils make sweeping changes in exchange for government bailouts to plug high needs deficits.

It comes amid a places crisis in special schools. A Schools Week investigation previously exposed how schools are forced to cram vulnerable pupils into converted therapy spaces and staffrooms.

Ministers have also confirmed which councils will pilot key SEND reforms through a £70 million “change programme”.

These councils will create inclusion plans and help inform the development of new national standards – which won’t be rolled out nationwide until potentially 2026.

A new consortium – including consultancy firms and an academy trust – will provide “expertise” to the councils.

Writing for Schools Week, children’s minister Claire Coutinho said the new schools are a “welcome boost to SEND provision where it’s most needed, as the schools chosen specifically meet the needs and shortfalls of their local areas”.

More schools for cash-strapped areas

The government announced 33 new special schools in March, as well as a new special free school in Bury as part of the safety valve programme.

Today Norfolk, Kent and Cambridgeshire have been granted two new schools each while Merton has one.

It means that 18 of the 41 new schools will open in areas with “safety valve” deals. A further 21 schools are in areas are under the lower tier of government intervention, called the delivering better value in SEND programme.

These schools are on top of a further 49 already in the pipeline.

The DfE say once all are complete, it will almost double the number of special free school places available across the country – from around 8,500 to 19,000.

However, these schools can take years to open, as Schools Week revealed last year.

The schools are funded through the £2.6 billion high needs capital funding, allocated in the 2021 spending review.

The deadline to run one of the 33 schools closes next week while organisations will have until November 3 to apply for the seven new latest schools.

Pilot councils to ‘work closely’ with families

Change programme partnerships (formerly called regional experts partnerships) have been confirmed.

Most regions will have one lead council working in partnership with up to three neighbours councils. The exception is the south west and the east midlands, where councils will be joint leaders.

Each partnership will “work closely” with families and children to “ensure they are involved in the testing, learning and development” of the reforms.

They will “bring together education and health services” to develop new inclusion plans.

The DfE said an example would be “making sure a child with special educational needs who is behind in reading is quickly assessed and given the right support”.

“This addresses feedback from families that the current system is often fragmented with agencies not working together.”

Partnerships will receive “extensive hands-on support and expertise” from the DfE’s delivery partner, a consortium called Reaching Excellence and Ambition for All Children (REACh).

PA Consulting will lead the consortium, which includes consultancy IMPOWER, the Council for Disabled Children (CDC) and Olive Academies.

The delivery partner role could be worth up to £9.8 million, according to previous contract documents.

Coutinho previously said it was “important” to “take time” to get the changes right amid criticism of the timeframe to deliver major policies.

The government’s own children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza had warned ministers the further wait risked “more years of children being fed” into a “vicious cycle”.

The seven new schools

  • Merton, 120 place all-through in Morden
  • Norfolk, 170 place all-through in Great Yarmouth
  • Norfolk, 100 place all-through in Down Market
  • Kent, 250 place all-through in Swanley
  • Kent, 120 place all-through in Whitstable
  • Cambridgeshire, 210 place all-through in Fenland
  • Cambridgeshire, 60 place secondary in Gamlingay

The change programme partnerships (lead councils are in bold):

  • East Midlands: Leicester, Leicestershire, Rutland 
  • East of England: Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Luton 
  • London: Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Islington 
  • North East: Hartlepool, Durham, Gateshead, Stockton on Tees 
  • North West: Manchester,Oldham, Rochdale, Trafford  
  • South East: Portsmouth, Brighton, East Sussex, West Sussex  
  • South West: Gloucestershire, Swindon  
  • West Midlands: Telford and Wrekin, Herefordshire, Shropshire,  
  • Yorkshire and Humber: Wakefield, Bradford, Calderdale, Leeds,

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