Cross-party councillors unite over threat to special needs school

POLITICS have been sidelined as cross-party councillors battle to save a school for children with autism from closure after its funding was axed.

County councillors for Stevenage Sharon Taylor (Labour), James Fraser (Conservative) and Robin Parker (Lib Dem) are spearheading a bid to save TRACKS Autism at The Glebe in Stevenage, which provides one-to-one education for autistic children from across Hertfordshire.

Herts County Council (HCC) withdrew its nursery grant credit of �11,500, which funds 26 per cent of the school’s costs, after central government changed its policy on giving grants to schools which charge top-up fees.

TRACKS Autism covers 32 per cent of its costs through top-up fees from parents.

Cllr Taylor maintains that HCC does have the discretion to continue to provide funding.

“There seems to be a mismatch of ideas,” she said.

“The minister Nick Gibb has said the council has got all the powers it needs to give funding and yet the council thinks it doesn’t.”

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Michael Shaw, chairman of TRACKS Autism, said: “The organisation feels it has been hit below the belt by a council inept at using the discretion available to it.

“We cannot believe the intransigence of a council that is so dumb as not to see the huge benefits of supporting an organisation such as TRACKS, that is a beacon early years provider in not only the county but the whole of the UK.”

Cllr Taylor, Cllr Parker and Cllr Fraser will meet with Cllr Richard Roberts, the county council’s executive member for children’s services, on April 19 to exhaust any possible options open to them.

“We really want to make sure that every avenue has been explored,” said Cllr Taylor.

Cllr Fraser added: “I’m very pro county council on most things, but they tend to put up barriers and that doesn’t work with me.

“We want to find a way to fund the school. If I have to put my own budget into it I will.”

Cllr Parker said he hoped one of three solutions could be adopted – HCC provides extra funds as a one off, private money to fund Tracks is secured, or parents make voluntary contributions to fund the service.

A spokesman for HCC said: “We take supporting vulnerable children very seriously and have offered support to TRACKS for 18 months to try to find a way to ensure their funding complies with government guidance and legislation.

“Our door is always open if they would like to have further discussions or take advantage of the technical support we can offer.”

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