Woodside Centre earmarked for new Welwyn Garden City special school
PUBLISHED: 13:56 15 May 2019 | UPDATED: 12:39 21 May 2019
The Woodside Centre has been revealed as the proposed location for a 60-place special school in Welwyn Garden City.
It had been previously announced that a new Hertfordshire special school would be built in Welwyn Garden City, but it was not confirmed until Monday that the Woodside Centre, off Howlands, is the intended site.
The 'free' special school would specifically cater for the growing number of pupils in the county with complex needs, including autism spectrum disorders, significant social and communication difficulties, high anxiety or mental health issues.
Currently, there are few services in the area that cater for those with complex needs according to Karen Spencer, the co-founder of Herts autism charity SPACE.
"The only charity for autism in the area, which runs support groups, is really just our charity which supports parents in the area and there is nothing that comes from the Government or council," said Karen, who has an autistic child at what she describes as a mainstream school in the area.
ADD-vance, another charity in Hertfordshire area helping autistic children, estimates there are over 200 children with emotional needs not in school and awaiting a place at a Herts special school. "The difficulty has been that a mainstream school has been decided as inappropriate [for these children] and there are not enough special schools," Anne Ross, director of ADD-vance, told WHT.
Ms Ross added there are four organisations throughout Hertfordshire that run support groups on a weekly basis for parents with autistic children and carers in the Welwyn Hatfield area.
At a meeting on Monday, Herts County Council said no operator for the school has yet been selected, but executive member for education, libraries and localism, Cllr Terry Douris, said the council would move to advertise the opportunity to operators by the end of this month.
Cllr Teresa Heritage, executive member for children young people and families, highlighted that the plans would enable more children to be "placed at schools within the county, rather than in the independent sector".
The cost per pupil, for the school, will be significantly higher at £10,000-a-year per-pupil, she said.
"There has been a continuing rise in Hertfordshire within the last few years of children with extremely complex needs who need to have very specialised facilities," said Cllr Heritage.
The funding for the school will be achieved with a mixture of government and county council funds.
Earlier this year the Department for Education (DfE) said it would make funding available for a new 'free' school in Hertfordshire, for children with special educational needs.
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The county council committed to paying up to £500,000 for the clearance of the site, should it be necessary to rebuild, and for any necessary highways works.
If it proves necessary to refurbish the existing building or rebuild on the site, the school could also benefit from access to £11.19 million of government capital funds.
Cllr Ralph Sangster, executive member for resources and performance at the county council, welcomed the investment, saying places were "very well needed" in the area.
And once fully open the DfE said it would provide £600,000 a year in revenue costs.
The Woodside Centre - formerly the Burnside School - is occupied at the moment by council staff from children's services, along with three voluntary sector organisations, Herts Action on Disability, Herts Vision Loss and the Herts Hearing Advisory Service.
The council agreed the charities should be supported in finding alternative premises, in addition to a six-month notice period.
The plans for the new 'free school' were also considered by the county council's education, libraries and localism cabinet panel and the resources and performance cabinet panel last Friday.
Labour councillor Sharon Taylor said she was ideologically opposed to free schools that are run independently from the council.
"What have we come to when we don't trust our local authorities to build and run our schools? It's a huge political issue for me," said Cllr Taylor, who is also leader of Stevenage Borough Counci.
"I am not going to vote against it, as we need special needs provision in the county and this is the only way to deliver it.
"I am astonished we have such lack of trust in county councils that we have moved away from local government being allowed to build and manage its own schools."
Conservative Mr Sangster said the council needed to work "within a political framework dictated by central government in relation to funding - taking advantage of what we can when we can and making sure Hertfordshire benefits from opportunities as they come along. And this is one of them.
"I think we should take this with two hands and progress it."
The county council has created more than 14,200 additional permanent and temporary primary and secondary school places since 2012.