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Spencer Pitfield: The Free Schools initiative is mercifully challenging the notion that there's a ‘set’ way of educating special needs children

Picture 3 Dr Spencer Pitfield is the Deputy Chairman of the Trustees for Paces Charitable Trust. He contested Sheffield Hallam in 2005 and Penistone & Stocksbridge in 2010, and was recently appointed Sectoral Head for Education, Higher Education and Culture by the Conservative Policy Forum. Here he gives his insights into the issues faced by special schools wanting to become a Free School.

Paces School will shortly be submitting its application to the DfE to be considered as one of the first cohort of Special Free Schools in the country. The school, which was set up over a decade ago by parents of children with cerebral palsy, is currently a non-maintained special school offering a conductive curriculum.

Many years back now, the trustees and management team became inspired by the possibility of becoming a Free School. The history of Paces School to date has been one of ongoing struggle as pupils, parents and teachers fought an ever complex local authority structure. Indeed, almost every pupil of the current twenty-seven strong student body has a story to tell about how difficult it has been to secure funding and support from their local Councils. Sadly, appeals and tribunal adjudications have not been
isolated incidents for pupils and parents wanting to attend the school.

I think it is fair to say Paces School was a Free School well before such a school ever existed. The school was set up by a small number of parents who believed the Hungarian approach of conductive education would help their children best as they learned to deal with the complex demands of growing up - and going to school - with cerebral palsy.

Here in Sheffield I often have discussions with individuals who are frankly diametrically opposed to Free Schools or Academies. "Why would you want to waste your time indulging in such applications?" is a common question posed.

Well, when a school like Paces has long struggled to gain recognition from the ‘powers that be’ and over the years has had to fight for its very existence, it gives an indication of why the school would want to be funded directly from Government.  Just to become a Free School in itself publicly validates the work of the pupils and teachers and recognises the excellence achieved.

It also remains clear to us that in the ‘old’ approach to special needs teaching, if you offered a curriculum outside of the ‘norm’ it became even harder for a school to exist (regardless of our very high Ofsted results to date). Clearly, one of the most exciting parts of the Free Schools initiative is that it challenges the very notion of a ‘set’ way of educating special needs children. Indeed, quite the opposite is encouraged within the Free School approach, asking educators to provide new and radical approaches to driving upwards educational outcomes. No longer will ‘one size fit all’ in the class room and we of course hope that our hugely successful conductive curriculum will as a result find greater support nationwide.

Of course, special needs education has extra complexities that quite rightly have required Government to tread more carefully as the Free School agenda is offered to special schools. Funding formulas, the correct statementing of children, the need to develop joint care and teaching programmes, amongst many other things, mean that the application of any new special school bids will take greater time and consideration.

However, it is hugely commendable that Government is forging ahead with this exciting agenda and I do firmly hope that Paces School and the children we educate will shortly be helping to pave the way for other special schools across the country.


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