Opportunities for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities in Lincolnshire are about to enjoy a huge boost – unexpectedly good news in times of cuts and austerity.
The county council is bucking the national trend with a £50m package to increase the support it provides, making sure children and young people have the right facilities to meet their needs.
The package includes a new school in Lincoln and expansion of several others. It will mean the development of special school satellites on some mainstream sites.
Crucially, it will mean all special schools can cater for all types of need and disability so that pupils can go to their nearest one, dramatically cutting the time they have to spend traveling.
Provision will also be improved for children with special needs who are able to attend mainstream schools.
The initiative was sparked by a request from the Government to all local authorities nationwide to increase the number of places for special needs in the system.
Demand for special education was growing, partly because of a rise in the population as a whole but also because increasingly sophisticated medical provision meant there were more children surviving with complex needs.
In Lincolnshire the county council launched a consultation exercise with school leaders and parents over plans for a major reorganisation.
The problem was the schools in Lincolnshire each specialised in a particular area of need. This meant many children having to travel long distances – in a large, rural county – to attend a school that could cater for them. Some even had to become weekly boarders.
The county council's chief education officer Heather Sandy told LocalGov: 'We wanted to make sure special schools were large enough and well equipped enough to meet the needs of very vulnerable children and young people. We wanted to make sure they had the resources they need to thrive.'
The council linked with parents, teachers and the commissioner for academies, who is responsible for the most of the 17 schools involved in the plan, to identify the cash needed to put it into action.
After an intensive two-month consultation, carried out with a focus on the needs of the young people concerned, the plan was agreed and the improvements are set to take place over the next five years.
This was evidently no mean feat considering there were around 20 organisations involved but also because of the division between the council, responsible for its own maintained schools, and the academies, effectively autonomous institutions overseen by a regional commissioner.
It is a complex mix that might have defeated many councils. Ms Sandy acknowledges the challenges posed, in particular making sure funding was signed off by all concerned before proceeding through each stage of the project.
'We managed to bring everyone together by putting the children and young people at the heart of decision making,' she says. 'But in the current fragmented educational landscape it was challenging.'
Peter Bell, CEO of the Community Inclusive Trust, responsible for several of the academies involved, stresses that the agreed common aim of putting the needs of the young people at the centre of the project – what was known as its 'morale purpose' – made it work.
'It was very much a partnership,' he says. 'Having the same goal really brought it all together and gave the parents and pupils the confidence that we were doing it for the right reasons.'
Coralie Cross, chair of the Lincolnshire Parent Carer Forum, confirms that children and families were central to the strategy from the beginning. She has high praise for the council's 'forward-thinking'.
'It's very good news,' she says. 'The fact that it will improve provision in mainstream schools as well is a fantastic opportunity. It's very exciting for us as parents but mainly it's great for the kids who will benefit for years to come.'