Special Free Schools – is it worth it?

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a conference about the formation of special free schools. I couldn't make it myself as I had other meetings, but Claire Louise, from the popular and award-winning, A Boy With Asperger's blog, kindly agreed to step in and attend for SNJ. Here's her report:

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Is it worth the hassle (a 100+ page bid and one hell of a load of work) that comes with starting a Special Free School?

There are many factors that need careful consideration, as well as a number of different circumstances each need applying to. For example, Is the school already up and running, therefore requiring just "Free School" status? This could apply to any school (independent & non-maintained) this excludes that of state schools who can instead apply to become academies.
Maybe you are considering starting up a Special Free School from scratch. It may only exisit on paper or an idea in your head. Maybe its because there is a gap in SEN provision that needs filling, therefore an idea of a Special Free school makes sense.

So as not to confuse anybody (as we all know these things can be mind boggling) I'll therefore take this one step at a time and will try to be a clear as possible as I do.

Firstly, What is a Special Free School?

A Special Free School is one that is funded by the Government yet run independently. So, you may ask how these are any different from independent schools? Independent schools are not reliant on the government for funding, instead these schools are funded by a combination of tuition fees, gifts, fundraising or in some cases income investments (for profit organisations). Non-maintained schools are normally run by not-for-profit charities, approved by the secretary of state to take children with statements of SEN.

So, What must a Special Free School Provide & how must it be run?

  • Provide education for children assessed as needing statements of SEN between the ages of 5-19 years of age.
  • Provide education to a minimum of 5 children
  • Only teach children with SEN or those being assessed as having SEN
  • Have regard to the SEN Code of Practice
  • Provide a curriculum that is one tailored to an individuals needs
  • Run by an acedemy trust (Charitable trust/not for profit)

Admissions to Special Free Schools will continue to be made via the LEA who retain responsibility for assessing a childs SEN

Important factors...

Applications must only be made by those schools that are new (meaning ones not already funded by the state as already mentioned above)

So... Who can set up a Special Free School?

Well, I should really rephrase the above question to, "Who can apply to set up a Special Free School?" Because the answer is just about anybody can, but this doesn't mean to say your application will be approved.

This isn't just a case of knowing that there is a gap in SEN provision (though it helps) groups of parents, charity groups etc,will struggle unless they have a member of their group who has strong knowledge of the education system (basically how to run a school on a senior level) Head teachers and board of governors make a good starting block. From what I have heard, many parent groups have formed wanting to start Special Free Schools but due to their lack of knowledge on the running of a school (including costs) they have therefore fallen at the first hurdle. This isn't just a case of coming together, forming a group and filling in an application.

Parents/groups/charity groups looking to apply to open Special Free Schools need to do their homework and should realise this isn't the only option (setting up fully independent schools may be a better, if not slightly easier, process). To set up a Special Free School, groups should appoint a director(s) and as mentioned, preferably someone who has some inside senior knowledge on the running of a school and importantly the likely cost that comes with it.

Writing the bid is also a far from easy task, this normally exceeds a 100 pages and no stone should be left unturned! Only then is there a chance you will make it to the "Interview Stage" The Governement has set up the New Schools Network which is there to help groups throughout the process and should really be your first port of call.
Understandably, given the state of the SEN system at present (the fact that there just aren't enough special schools in most areas and there are huge gaps in provision) many groups, especially those consisting of parents of children diagnosed with SEN, will be looking into Special Free Schools. However, I feel that when looking more closely, they may well discover things are much more complicated then identifying the need for a school, finding a site and opening one. I'm not saying people assume its easy, just that it seems much harder than I first thought, plus it may not be all its cracked up to be (just read on to see where I'm going with this.)

So, what about existing independent schools? WOuld it be beneficial for them to apply for SFS status? It sounds so considering these will continue to be ran independently yet receive state funding to do so! What's the catch? Of course like everything there is one!

Special schools that are already setup and established will not be provided with the start-up funding However, there are some exceptions, such as expanding pupil capacity -but there are still no guarantees.

The next big factor is admissions. Once Special Free School status is granted to those independent schools, the LEA will have the right to make them take children with varying needs, even ones the school does not cater for. Therefore this means that independent schools that for example only provide education for children on the autism spectrum, will have to take children with other needs, social, emotional, more complexed SEN or varying disabilities. For me, this is a massive issue, one that would make me consider such a change much more carefully if I was making such a decision about an independent school.

My son is in an independent special school just for children with autism and Asperger's. The school teaches in small groups and have a high pupil-teacher ratio. I would honestly worry if it was to convert to that of Special Free School status. I'm not being selfish, I just feel that by admitting children outside this status of SEN may result in all children not having their needs met, not mentioning the school reaching over-capacity. I also worry that dependent on how many independent schools within my postcode convert to Special Free School Status, the local LEA may try to move my child in order to save money (his at an independent out-of-borough school).

So... with the bad points out of the way, are there any good ones? The only ones I can actually think of is that of the reduction in tribunal cases. It's quite simple really...if independent special schools convert to Special Free Schools, then the number of parents bringing cases to the SEN tribunal will fall. LEAs will be much more willing to send a child to the school as it won't be charging the independent fees it once was. This would also mean that more children would possibly be educated within their borough. For me, neither outweigh the issue of admissions (this for me just creates worry).

Whoever you are, if a Special Free School is something you are seriously considering, there are important issues to consider. One of the biggest is that of the pending SEN reforms. With the future of SEN provision still up in the air, is now the right time to be making such huge decisions? The Green Paper will mean a complete SEN overhaul. This includes the scrapping of the SEN Statement and replacement with the Education, Health and Care plan taking its place. Other factors include everything from the way a child with SEN is assessed, the funding a school will receive and the possibility of a personal budget. We don't even know what the new EHCP will look like and if the social care part will hold any legal and statutory duty whatsoever.

Can't this government do one thing at a time? It makes no sense to me to open Special Free schools when the way such children are provided for remains so unclear.

Okay, so heres the nitty gritty on the issue of Special Free School funding:
As far as I can make out, there is no set capital - this is therefore allocated on a project by project basis. The secretary of state must take into account the estimated or "potential" costs of each individual group's bid. As already stated, there is no start up funding for existing schools, only new schools (special circumstances will be given consideration.)

Do your homework, this is a government-funded scheme which will mean that they want to see low costs and good value for money!
Remember, the government is still consulting on long term funding for special schools. As it stands, the interim funding arrangements put in place is to receive base-funding level funding of £10k per place (note there may be additional funding from some LEAs dependent on an individual's needs. Well, let's be honest, 10k isn't much, especially for a child with complex needs who requires a number of high-level provisions put in place like SLT and OT.

Lastly, Special Free Schools, like other free schools, should receive a standard grant to compensate for services that state maintained schools recive from the LA.

If considering a Special Free School, remember these only cater for children aged 5-19. This is regardless of the pending EHCP, which covers children aged 0-25.

So, there you have it! I hope I didn't confuse you!

Thanks to Tania  at Special Needs Jungle for asking me to attend the New Schools Network forum which enabled me to write this report. Please visit the New Schools Network for detailed information and advice on Special Free Schools and Free Schools

Claire Louise (A boy With Asperger's)

I'm up for most inspiring blog in the Mad blog Awards 2012
Please vote for me (A boy with Aspergers) at http://www.the-mads.com/vote.htm

Find me on twitter @clairelouise82

Tania Tirraoro
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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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4 Comments

  1. I was trying to figure out what the equitable program in the States would be for this, and while similar, Charter Schools are for all children, not just those with special needs. In looking over some of the other posts about services (and struggles!) of those in the UK I can’t help but think that we all face similar problems in different ways within our own legislative shortcomings/struggles and societal misunderstanding/prejudices.

    How would you compare the special free schools with viable alternatives in the states or in other countries, if you are aware of them?

  2. I have been considering providing SEN support in a formal setting but have found the Free School model to be fraught with difficulties and many underlying issues, not least funding. My view is that should I move forward to provide support for such children, i will stick with my original idea and create this setting outisde of the ‘school’ model. My vision is to provide assessment basd interventions which co-exist with the child’s educational setting.
    This approach would help identify and support the needs of children experiencing a wide range of SEN. Pupils would attend on a part-time basis.
    Please feel free to contact me should you wish to find out more / collaborate at louise.acacia@googlemail.com

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