Two centres of excellence for autistic children are planned as part of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision in Central Bedfordshire, which also includes capital investment of more than £30m, a meeting heard.
One will be in the north of the county in the Biggleswade area, and the other in the south serving the Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard area, the local authority’s children’s services overview and scrutiny committee was told.
Trying to keep pace with demand will always be a challenge, warned Central Bedfordshire Council’s chief SEND officer Jackie Edwards.
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“Children on the autistic spectrum and those with social, emotional mental health (SEMH) difficulties are the ones we require the greatest spaces for and remain focused on in the short- and medium-term,” she explained.
“Our four special schools have had increased funding during the past two years. We hope to develop centres of excellence for autism in our new provision, one in the north and one in the south of the district. We’ll also have a programme of outreach and training.”
CBC’s executive recognised the need for more places following feedback from parents to a ‘Have your say’ consultation and updated forecasts, according to a report to the committee.
“It was agreed to continue work on the delivery of the short-term to medium-term need for extra places within Central Bedfordshire, while working on the strategic specialist place plan to meet longer-term need,” said the report.
“The council committed £26.745m capital funding in February to support the delivery of this plan, and £30.282m is allocated in the capital pipeline.
“Demand for education, health and care plans (EHCPs) has doubled in Central Bedfordshire during the last two years.
“Most children with an EHCP will have their needs met in mainstream schools, but the rise in numbers is leading to an increased pressure for specialist education provision.
“The number of pupils with an EHCP maintained by CBC is forecast to increase significantly to rise above 3,000 by January 2025 and more than 3400 by January 2030.”
An undertaking was made by the executive to deliver an extra 80 additional resource provision places by September 2023 in line with the need identified, added the report.
“This included more autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) provision required in the Dunstable, Houghton Regis, Harlington and Leighton-Linslade area, and more provision for children with SEMH needs in the Shefford area.
“There are some gaps in meeting the short-term need, specifically the expansion of ASD places in Sandy, but we’re seeking to address these as part of the longer-term plan.
“There was strong support for increasing capacity at all four special schools locally, and for the 2021 to 2024 academic years 370 more places have been delivered or are planned.”
Deputy director of children’s services Sarah Ferguson said: “In the reset Schools for the Future programme, that SEND question of where the opportunities are at every school and ‘Are we getting it right?’ is definitely part of the revised work.
A further report including phase two of the plans (medium-term to longer-term need) will be presented to a future committee meeting.