St Giles: a very special school indeed

By - Tuesday 28th February, 2017

The unique challenges facing Croydon’s special schools

Photo by St Giles School, used with permission.

This year St Giles Special School celebrates 40 years at its site in Pampisford Road, South Croydon. The school started in Thornton Heath as a school for ‘Physically Defective Children’. It then moved to Featherbed Lane in 1933, where it stayed until moving to its current site in 1977. Later this year, St Giles will hold events to celebrate the anniversary. I wanted to use this historic opportunity to write about the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND or Special) schools in Croydon, and the vital service they provide.

Croydon has six dedicated special schools and over a dozen Enhanced Learning Provision units inside mainstream schools. These schools meet a wide range of needs for pupils with profound, severe and moderate learning difficulties, autism, physical disabilities and speech and language difficulties. The six schools have between them over 700 pupils on the roll.

The range of difficulties differs greatly

The range of difficulties faced by these pupils differs greatly. In recent years, pupils with mild learning difficulties and additional needs have tended to move into mainstream schools. These moves have been made possible by equipping schools with ramps and lifts, or by setting up Enhanced Learning Provision in mainstream schools. These specialist bases allow pupils to gain access at a more tailored pace and method to the fullest range of the curriculum taught.

The special schools meet a range of cognitive and physical needs. In an area where no two children face the same set of challenges, pupils can be characterised as facing some or many of the following difficulties:

    • in understanding new or complex information
    • in coping independently
    • having limited, little or no speech
    • having challenging behaviours
    • finding it very difficult to learn new skills
    • unable to understand and retain basic mathematical skills and concepts
    • short attention spans
    • underdeveloped co-ordination skills
    • having difficulties with social skills
    • needing support with daily activities such as dressing, washing, eating and keeping safe
    • needing life-long support.

Each individual may struggle with a different range of these skills. Most of the special school pupils won’t be taking GCSEs – and, in a lot of cases, won’t go on to live truly independent lives after school.

Many pupils travel across borough boundaries

As debates rage on about grammar and technical versus comprehensive schools, the special needs side of the education system is full of schools whose purpose and pupil profile differ based on pupil need. Many pupils travel across borough boundaries to schools and significant private provision is used where there is a lack of space or appropriate provision in Croydon.

The good news is, special needs provision is continuing to expand and demand for the most specialist places is growing faster than demand overall. This is good news because it is – in part – driven by more newborn babies surviving complications at birth where previously they would have sadly passed away.

The challenges now facing special schools in Croydon include how to continue to meet rising demand; demand driven by both a rising population and the rising percentage needing specialist provision. Finding space for new schools is the first challenge. More pupils need wheelchairs and often these are bigger electric chairs. Even more physically able pupils often can’t cope with large staircases. Large footprint sites with plenty of space for school buses and parents to be able to pick up and drop off pupils are needed. These sites are limited in Croydon and especially limited in the north of the borough, where there is the highest growth in demand for special school places.

Mainstream and special education funding are separated

Funding for education is delivered by a dedicated grant from central government to local councils. Mainstream and special education funding are separated. Funding for mainstream secondary school pupils in Croydon was £4,559.18 per pupil in 2014/15; funding for special school pupils can range from £15,000 to £40,000. The difference is in large part due to high staffing and often dedicated one-to-one assistance needed.

These funding levels provide an opportunity for the council. Significant numbers of pupils, especially at college age, go to private provisions. These are usually charitable concerns – but often cost significantly more than the same provision would in a council-run school or a new academy. Annual savings in the £100,000s are possible by moving pupils into expanded or new council or academy schools. There are also opportunities to provide provision across boroughs or jointly with Surrey County Council. Many pupils already come in to Croydon for specialist schooling and new provisions could be revenue funded by bringing in pupils from neighbouring boroughs facing the same challenges as Croydon.

New special schools need to be cost effective

Some pupils will always need highly specialist provision, which will almost certainly be privately provided within a limited number of facilities across the country. New special schools need to not just be cost effective, but be the right thing to do. Bringing pupils into a council’s schools only makes sense if they can be given the right facilities, the right teaching and find a suitable cohort to learn with and from.

Working with Croydon Council over the last decade and seeing both Labour and Conservative councils in action, I have found discussions around special schools refreshingly apolitical. This may be because of the lack of focus they get from the wider community – but I also do believe councillors and council officials are trying to take the best decisions from complex options. Where decisions have hit problems or had to change, a lack of detailed awareness of, and assumptions about, the special schools have been the root cause. Ten years ago, my experience was that many special schools wanted to almost hide themselves away. This has changed as more schools are having open days, and more schools are reaching out to the wider community. Part of the change we are seeing resulted in the New Year’s Honours list with the Executive Head Teacher of Beckmead School, Dr Jonty Clark, being awarded an OBE.

The pace of change in special school provision continues. When I joined the governing body at St Giles, roughly half of the pupils would take GCSEs and most pupils would sit SATs. We no longer have pupils sitting SATs – and don’t expect to enter any more pupils for GCSEs. The curriculum is now based on creative learning for all pupils from 4-19, having moved away from traditional subject-based learning for secondary pupils. ASDAN and other qualifications exist that are more suitable for the capabilities of the school’s pupils. The school is a great example of inter-agency cooperation. It hosts an onsite medical, physiotherapy, speech and language and occupational therapy teams (all employed by the NHS), and working daily with the council’s transport team to get pupils to and from school.

Normal rules just don’t apply

Normal ‘rules’ don’t apply on pupils’ progress, with some pupils having limited capability to progress and very small steps taking a term or more. ‘Looked-after children’ regularly outperform other cohorts, no coloration can be found between free school meals (FSM) pupil attainment versus non-FSM pupil attainment. The school is still very much a school – and provides a wide curriculum, just in different way from a mainstream provision.

Despite the physical limitation of the pupils, sports are a key feature of what the school provides. In 2016, St Giles won the London Boccia championship and came fifth in the Boccia nationals in Sheffield. The Panathlon team went to the Copper Box to defend their title as ‘Grand London Champions’.

How special St Giles truly is

This, among St Giles’ many other achievements, has meant it is the current Croydon Special School of the Year. Many current and former pupils will tell you how special the school is in so many ways; how much of a family staff, pupils and volunteers can be. In 40 more years, St Giles may well have moved site again and seen further changes to the challenges its pupils face. The importance of this provision and that at our other special schools will undoubtedly continue to grow and become better understood across the borough.

If you would like to know more about the special school sector in Croydon, I would encourage you attend one of the events at St Giles. These include an open morning for visitors on Friday 19 May; for Old Scholars and staff an open afternoon also on Friday 19 May; and a fun day with a ’70s twist on Saturday 17 June. Also visit the website and look out for other events and open days at any of these schools:

Michael Swadling

Michael Swadling

Michael works in the IT Industry for and has lived in Croydon all of his life. He has been a governor in local schools for over twelve years. During the referendum he was the Croydon Area Manager for Vote Leave, Now promoting Classical Liberalism and Freedom. Visit Croydon Constitutionalist for events and articles on Classical Liberalism in our area Former UKIP candidate for Croydon North and Croydon Council.

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