'Disaster from start to finish': Parents slam school for failing kids
- Credit: Sonya Duncan/ Jane Wisbey/ Beth Knight
An exasperated city mum has spoken of her autistic daughter's battle for a decent education, calling her time at an inadequate special school "a disaster start to finish".
Norwich mum Jane Wisbey secured a placement for her daughter at Acorn Park residential and day school (APS) in 2017, following the then 15-year-old's rejection from 20 other schools — all because they couldn't handle her epilepsy, ADHD and autism.
But while her daughter was able to "thrive" socially, Ms Wisbey says she feels the now 19-year-old, who left in July 2021, has learned more through home schooling in the last few months than she did during her four-year stint at APS.
She claims constant staff turnover from 2019 onwards ruined her daughter's education, who was sent nothing but "worksheets" well below her intellectual ability as substitute for "lessons" in residential accommodation.
She explained: "The school blamed my daughter for not being able to cope in a classroom but every time she built up a relationship with staff, they left.
"It was a disaster start to finish, though I can't fault the residential team for massively improving her social skills."
The 53-year-old mum's scathing criticisms of the school - ranked "inadequate" by Ofsted in 2020 but commended for improving since - have been echoed by fellow parent Beth Knight.
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She recently won a case against the school after staff discriminated against her daughter Chloe, now 15, due to her disability.
Ms Knight, from Halesworth, took APS to tribunal for special educational needs and disability, winning her case after the hearing across June and July, 2021.
In relation to both of their former students, a spokeswoman from APS said staff had done their best to meet the pupils' needs.
She said: "The issue of staff turnover has been resolved. Newly appointed school leaders in September 2020 have established a stable workforce of suitably skilled, qualified and experienced staff, as reflected in the recent Ofsted report.
"Interim Ofsted inspections in April 2021 confirm the school has made significant progress.
"Residential and education teams are delighted Ms Wisbey's daughter has transitioned successfully into her young adult life, and that Chloe has found a new provider. We wish them both the best for their future.
"The orders given to us by the judge following the case with Chloe are being followed in full."
But Ms Knight, 48, said no ruling would ever be justice enough for Chloe, who went without a formal education for nine months from January-September, suffered debilitating depression following her "unjust" exclusion and even contemplated suicide.
The tribunal found Outcomes First Group Ltd, the body responsible for APS, discriminated against Chloe when it moved her to a new class in October 2020 without consulting her, failed to accommodate her return following a half-day exclusion on November 25 — and then kicked her out the school entirely on December 21 without sufficient notice, claiming they couldn't meet her needs.
In fact, the judge ruled that the school "evidently could" meet Chloe's need — and only got rid of her because they couldn't cope with her mum's "persistent criticism" of its provision.
As a result, APS management has been ordered by the court to arrange training for staff to avoid discriminating against disabled pupils, and girls in particular, and send a copy of the judge's decision to Ofsted, the Department for Education, Suffolk County Council and the Human Rights Commission.
Ms Knight explained: "The school had me down as a 'difficult mum', and my daughter a 'naughty child'.
"But she has autism, ADHD, sensory processing difficulties and pathological demand avoidance. Of course she's going to act out when nobody is listening her.
"After they excluded her, it took us forever to get a new placement, and she's only started her new school full time in September this year, having spent months doing minimal learning online.
"I had to quit my job to look after her and she's having to resit Year 10 because of the setbacks. It was a disgrace."
What have the councils said?
Janet Willicott, the SEND expert and Public Health fellow who represented Ms Knight in court, said she is doing her best to keep pressure on the school following the ruling.
Earlier this year, she presented a report to APS — which currently has 84 pupils, and for which fees start at £62,500 — outlining the testimonies of 13 parents who were furious with how management had treated their children.
Suffolk County Council, which previously suspended placements to the school because of concerns, did not respond to requests for comment.
However Norfolk County Council confirmed it had not suspended placements for Norfolk students, and that some parents were actually naming APS as their preferred choice.
Councillor John Fisher said: "We always work with parents and schools when concerns are raised with us to try and resolve issues, taking swift action where evidence shows this is necessary.”
What's the solution?
MP for Norwich South Clive Lewis the parents featured in this report were "far from alone", and that a decimation of school resources for a decade had left SEND children paying the price, and the buck for their responsibility passed from one authority to another.
He explained that the government must stop the "marketisation" of schools, which was driving hardworking staff out of the profession altogether.
For county councillor Mike Smith-Clare, Labour's lead for children and young people, solutions could lie in the timely production of educational health and care plans (EHCP), appropriate transport to and from schools and access to qualified staff.
He added: "Too many learners have been cut adrift and had their needs ignored.
"SEND provision has been underfunded for years, with those most in need receiving the least investment."