Parents battle to save centre for children with autism from closure

Parents of children attending the access centre at Chipping Sodbury School have launched a petition as they try to save it from closure

A CAMPAIGN has been launched to save a centre for children with special educational needs and disabilities that is set to close.

The unit at Chipping Sodbury School serves families from across the area, including Frampton Cotterell, Yate, Westerleigh and further afield.

A 10-year contract with South Gloucestershire Council expires next year and the Athelstan Trust, which runs the school, says it cannot renew it because its funding has been slashed.

In a letter to parents, head teacher Katherine Turner said the £40,000 the school used to receive per pupil had not increased over the last decade and that it now faced being left with a base of just £15,000 per pupil, which is not enough to meet the children’s needs.

The council is blaming the academy trust for the closure, but opposition groups say the fault lies with the council’s administration.

Parents campaigning to save the unit, which currently has 12 pupils with autism spectrum disorder, appealed directly to political leaders at a council meeting on February 15, speaking passionately about how vital it was for their youngsters.

One parent said: “It’s an absolute disaster for the children and their families.

“There are no local sites that can meet these young people’s needs. Having to travel long distances is unthinkable for many who have extreme anxiety.”

Another parent said: “My young person has no physical disabilities but needs a high level of support.

“He wasn’t considered disabled enough for some placements, and not independent enough for others.

“The Access Centre bridged that gap. Without Chipping Sodbury, children like mine won’t be able to go to school.”

They were joined by local child psychologist Sean Rhodes, who works with children with autism and communication difficulties.

He said: “Where will these children go for their education? We already know that there is no space at other bases and centres, or in our special schools.”

A petition aimed at keeping the centre open has received more than 1,000 signatures.

It says the unit is set to be hit by new “Banding and Safety Valve agreements”, aimed at increasing “value for money” in specialist provision.

Athelstan Trust chief executive Tim Gilson said it was a “horrible situation” caused by a lack of funding to the council from central government for pupils with special needs and disabilities.

Political row

The council’s cabinet has blamed the trust for the closure.

Cabinet member for education Erica Williams said: “This decision by the trust came totally out of the blue.

“We asked the trust to come to the table. The trust refused to come to the table.

“We don’t see why there is any reason for it to close – through the banding changes there will still be sufficient funds for that access centre to remain open.”

Council cabinet member for education Erica Williams (second left) told a meeting that the Athelstan Trust had made its closure decision ‘out of the blue’

But opposition groups say the the fault clearly lies with the council administration.

Liberal Democrat group leader Claire Young told the meeting: “The parents will have almost certainly had a long battle to get their child into the centre, and now when they thought they had the answer they see it being snatched away.

“It’s a disgrace that this council is risking the education of some of its most vulnerable children and I urge a rethink.”

The petition can be found online at the website.

By Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporting Service