The pledge was made by the authority’s cabinet member for schools, Phillippa Williamson as she and her cabinet colleagues approved proposals for two new dedicated SEND units at schools in the east of the county.
The facilities will be created at Barrowford Primary School in Nelson and St Leonard’s Church of England Primary School in Padiham.
They were amongst just seven schools from across Lancashire to answer a call from the county council last year to create the units. However, three of them withdrew initial expressions of interest because of the pandemic, while two others – Lytham Church of England Primary School and Weeton Primary School – have also since decided not to pursue the plans.
The new facilities will each create 16 places – but County Hall’s initial aim was to generate 288 places across 24 different mainstream sites, split equally between the primary and secondary school phases.
The authority wants to close the gap between the proportion of SEND children educated within a mainstream environment and those attending special schools, when compared to the national average. Last year in Lancashire, 42 percent of SEND pupils went to special schools – 10 percent more than across England as a whole.
Papers to presented to cabinet members this week indicate that the county may be shifting gradually towards the national average, but that the process is likely to take several years.
Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali said that there had been “disappointingly slow progress” on the plans for SEND units within mainstream settings.
County Cllr Williamson appeared to share his sense of urgency.
“We are now talking to a number of schools, having really detailed conversations with them to try and progress this as quickly as we can.
“We’re pretty confident that we will be able to meet the numbers that we expect and we will do everything that we can – including, if that means more investment, or whatever it takes – to get these places into those mainstream schools.
“We know that is the best thing for the children and we know that’s what the children and parents want,” County Cllr Williamson said.
Cabinet members were told that eight schools were now in discussions with the authority, one of which is a secondary – the only one so far to have come forward – with a view to consultations taking place before the end of the academic year and the new units coming into operation from January 2022.
Plans were also approved for expansion – and, in one case, relocation – of two existing special schools in the county.
Broadfield Specialist School in Oswaldtwistle will shift to the disused Hameldon Community College in Burnley, with pupil numbers rising from 150 to 210. Prior to the move, two temporary classrooms will be installed on the current site to accommodate additional numbers.
In a public consultation, 93 percent of 43 respondents strongly agreed or tended to agree with the change. It is expected that the majority of staff will transfer to the new site and there will be no increase in class sizes.
Sir Tom Finney Community High School in Preston will also expand, opening up a currently unoccupied upper floor and adding up to 72 pupils to its existing roll, to bring the maximum total to 245.
In a statement after the cabinet meeting, County Cllr Williamson said: “Pupils should be taught at mainstream schools close to where they live where possible. Creating the new facilities at Barrowford Primary School and St Leonard’s Primary in Padiham will mean we can offer extra places at the heart of local communities.
“However, we recognise that special school provision is also crucial. By developing Sir Tom Finney Community High School and moving Broadfield Specialist School to the site of the former Hameldon Community College in Burnley, we’ll provide a range of additional specialised support for young people.
“These superb teaching facilities will help us to support children and young people to achieve their full potential in education, learning and future employment.
“The improvements are part of our long-term SEND strategy, which aims to provide learning opportunities, support children and young people to develop their talents and make a positive transition to adulthood.”