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Glimmer of hope for special needs

PUBLISHED: 17:28 14 February 2008 | UPDATED: 10:26 03 July 2010

Miles Jermy

PARENTS and teachers joined forces with councillors this week to step up the battle against the closure of special educational needs facilities in the borough.

PARENTS and teachers joined forces with councillors this week to step up the battle against the closure of special educational needs facilities in the borough.

There has been fierce opposition to plans announced last year to shut centres for children with severe learning difficulties at North Denes Middle in Great Yarmouth and Hillside First in Bradwell.

They would be replaced with facilities at Lingwood and Acle where there are currently no centres for special needs pupils.

Campaigners were given renewed hope that both units could still be saved despite being recommended for closure in a review carried out for Norfolk County Council.

Strategic director for special educational needs Mike Bateman told the specially organised Great Yarmouth Area committee meeting a final decision would not be made until the completion of a feasibility study.

He said: “There are three possible outcomes, to uphold the present recommendations, retain the units in this area because there is more need than in the Acle area or make extra resources available to fund both new and existing facilities. This is certainly something that we need to take a closer look at.”

Avril Witheridge, whose eight year old son Jack attends the unit at Hillside, handed in a 790-signature petition, collected in two weeks, to committee chairman Michael Taylor.

“To have got nearly 800 signatures in the last fortnight is very good going considering there are only nine children at the unit,” said Mrs Witheridge.

“Jack has really benefitted from going there, but there are lots more children like him who need help but I am not sure if they will get it. Before he came Jack could not deal with social situations, but the change in him has been tremendous and he has obtained national levels in literacy and numeracy.”

Hillside headteacher Christine Bryant has been at the forefront of the fight to save the centre, rated as outstanding in the school's most recent report from the education standards watchdog Ofsted.

She said: “These vulnerable children often get overlooked and if the changes go through they will not have the specialised education they desperately need. I am concerned there will be no provision for early years children in the borough and it seems quite a distance to have go to Lingwood.

“It is ludicrous our unit is being considered for closure; it has been open for 29 years - there are staff with more than 20 years' experience who have developed skills that other teachers don't have.”

There are five children at the centre in North Denes with conditions including autism and global learning delay.

Chairman of governors Patricia Hollis said: “Yarmouth is a deprived area and there are many children with great needs. There are about 13 children expected to be at the unit in September and it is shocking there could be no provision for them.

“We have had an SEN base for many years; it would be a great shame if this was taken away and the county council needs to think very carefully before making this decision.”

Monday's meeting was attended by the majority of the borough's county councillors who unanimously agreed to a resolution strongly disagreeing with the closure of the centres at Hillside and North Denes.

Trevor Wainwright, who represents Bradwell on the borough and county council for Labour, noted there were no Yarmouth representatives in the cabinet which was contemplating the closure of two “outstanding” units.

Former council chairman, Labour's Colleen Walker said an enforced move would be horrendous for many of the children and it would be outrageous to make them travel. “The needs of the children need to be put before statistics and resources,” she said.

Gorleston Conservative councillor Bert Collins said children should come first and vowed to fight the plans behind closed doors, warning that county councillors could still choose ultimately to vote against it.

The issue was raised again in front of a crowd of parents at the county council's cabinet scrutiny committee on Tuesday, after being called in by Mr Wainwright and Green councillor Andrew Boswell.

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