Specialist school ‘devastated’ by funding cut

A school that provides an outstanding education to children with autism has been left devastated after its funding was axed – leaving the future of the school in doubt.

TRACKS Autism at The Glebe in Stevenage provides one-to-one education for autistic children from across Hertfordshire and has Ofsted’s highest rating, but it has been told by Herts County Council that its nursery grant credit which funds 26 per cent of its costs has been withdrawn.

The decision comes after a change in central government policy on giving grants to schools that charge fees. Top up fees from parents makes up 32 per cent of TRACKS’ costs, with the rest from charitable donations.

An eleventh hour meeting between school trustees and county officials for discretionary treatment to keep the �11,500 funding in place failed.

Mervyn Terrett chairman of the school trustees said the whole school is “devastated and appalled” by the rejection.

“Our claim for discretionary assistance would have ensured TRACKS could remain open. It would have secured the right for current and future parents to send some of our communities’ most needy children to Hertfordshire’s only, and indeed one of only three of the UK’s leading outstanding Ofsted rated specialist children’s centres,” he said.

“A direction to us to seek charity funding in order to keep TRACKS afloat until 2013 when new government rules will apply can be seen only as a sop to sweeten the bitterness of rejection for the children who use this outstanding service.”

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He added it showed a lack of foresight by those present at the meeting at County Hall last Thursday.

“Early intervention is viewed by everyone - including central government’s Special Educational Needs green paper, as key to making life changing opportunities open to children who need them.”

The school which can cover the shortfall for six months from its reserves will not raise fees for parents, Vicki Whent, trustee and parent of an autistic boy, said.

“We are determined not to go down that road – that will cut off parents who need it most, those who are struggling with their kids and finances,” she said. “We are going to keep things the same until July. We hope in that time we can carry on.”

County and borough councillor Robin Parker who has given locality funding to the school in his Chells ward, said he thought a compromise could have been reached with better off parents paying more.

He added that the school is the unfortunate victim of a well-intentioned government rule.

“TRACKS had been charging fees because they say they need more than they get from the standard rates.

“Government quite rightly are saying that they can’t because things should be free for everyone.”

Justin Donavan, children’s services director at County Hall said funding the school would break financial regulations and the authority “cannot play fast and loose with government funding or its own.”

A statement from County Hall said: “TRACKS offer an outstanding service that is valued by the county council. However, the law prevents us from providing free place funding to services which require a top-up fee from parents.

“As a result, we will not be able to continue funding the eight autistic spectrum children who attend the centre.

“The majority of children also attend other Hertfordshire preschools to receive their free early education entitlement and if TRACKS does close they will continue to receive excellent support from Hertfordshire County Council’s Special Educational Needs service.”

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