Parent fears over SEND children still being ‘left behind’ as plans for Northants special school are approved
A brand new specialist education school for children in Northamptonshire was recently approved, however many parents across the county say they are still fighting for support and worry that their child won’t ‘fit the box’ for the provision.
Plans for Tiffield Academy were given the green light by West Northamptonshire Council on January 23.
The facility is set to begin a staggered opening in September 2025, welcoming a total of 252 pupils on the autistic spectrum and those with severe learning difficulties.
A spokesperson for West Northants SEND Action Group, which brings together families who are advocating for their children’s education, said that the new Tiffield school is “really needed”, but has come “many years too late”.
“We’re hopeful it will be really positive for the local SEND community but it’s going to be nowhere near enough.
“A lot of the families that we’re hearing from have children, most autistic, and in a lot of cases their children won’t fit the profile for that school. There needs to be a huge policy and attitude shift if any of our children have any hope of getting what they need and deserve,” they added.
West Northamptonshire Council has said that the school will help to meet the “significant demand” for SEND places in the county and will cater for young people who are faced with a “greater shortfall in provision”. It acknowledged that the facility was not “a solution for all” and said it is working hard to provide support in other ways.
‘It is constant chasing and trying to fight a battle… trying to get your child’s needs is like a job in itself’
Isaac, nine, from Northampton, is one of the children currently not attending school. He has been out of mainstream education since April 2023 and now, 10 months later, is still fighting for a full support package of alternative education. Since leaving his primary school, Isaac has been given ten hours a week of educational provision, but his mum Kelly Thompson doesn’t think it’s enough.
Kelly told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “I think [Tiffield Academy] is a positive thing. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tick the boxes of that sort of school.
“It shouldn’t have to be like this. It is constant chasing and trying to fight a battle while you’re trying to balance the needs of your child who needs that extra support.
“All I want is the right package to support my son.”
Kelly said that Isaac’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis came “too little too late” and that his experience at school has only added to his complex needs and trauma.
“His opinion of school has been severely eroded. He was restrained quite a lot when he was in mainstream due to his behaviours because he didn’t want to be there and used to be kept in one room a lot for his own safety and the safety of others.
“Looking back now there’s not the training in schools to identify children properly. That’s why these children are being traumatized because their needs aren’t being picked up.”
An emergency review of his EHCP was carried out which highlighted the need for a highly specialist setting. His mum believes he needs a therapeutic school to help him learn, but said that there is nothing like that within the county.
“For him, he’s not been able to thrive properly for a good few years now. Trying to get your child’s needs is like a job in itself- the stress and frustration that it puts you under is immense.
“I’ve done all my bit- it’s the local authority that are the ones not playing ball.”
‘You’re just left feeling like you’ve got no voice’
Not far away, on the outskirts of Northampton, Claire Warden shared her battle to find a suitable placement for her eight-year-old son, Tommy. She echoed a similar fate as other SEND parents, having to take Tommy out of school a year ago in February 2023 and remaining in “limbo” ever since.
Tommy is currently attending a nearby specialist school for a few hours a week but recently was told that they could no longer meet all his learning requirements. Her hunt to find a school for her child, who has ADHD and social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) and communication and language needs continues; she feels that Tiffield Academy also won’t offer the right package for him.
“He’s missed pretty much all of his primary education which is really sad because he is incredibly bright. He won’t be covered by this new school either, which is a massive shame,” she said.
“We would love for West Northamptonshire to have a school place for him on our doorstep. When we’re in the home education community a lot of those children seem to have similar needs to Tommy, so why is nobody looking at that?”
During his time in mainstream primary school, Claire said that Tommy was completely taken out of the classroom with other pupils his age to be taught in a room with various adults acting as one-to-ones.
“They just blatantly didn’t understand his needs. At that point, he was six or seven and he just didn’t understand why he couldn’t play with his friends. It was just heartbreaking,” she added.
As have many other SEND parents, Claire has been through the process of getting an education health and care plan (EHCP), tribunals, complaints procedures and more to get the support she believes Tommy deserves.
“It’s not just the lack of school places, it’s the lack of joined-up approach between all the services. I’m really burnt out. Every day it’s something new and it’s just completely thankless.
“Parents view EHCPs as a ticket to everything; they’re not. They’re a ticket to more frustration. It’s just such a terrible terrible process- it chews you up and spits you out.
“You’re just left feeling like you’ve got no voice and it makes you feel very helpless that you can’t do something concrete to support your own child.”
She says that there are no other schools in the county that could take on Tommy, with the only feasible facility being in Warwickshire.
“If the school that we’re looking at comes back ‘can’t meet needs’ I don’t know what the way forward would be.
“I just feel really sad and I just feel such a failure as a parent. There’s so much parent-blaming that goes on that I just feel I’m failing him the whole time.”
‘It’s almost like she’s not in school and they don’t have to think about it- it’s out of sight out of mind’
Another child with additional needs, Amelie, lives in a Northamptonshire village only a five-minute drive from the new Tiffield school. Like others, her mum doesn’t feel that the school will be suitable for her.
Amelie, nine, is autistic and has severe separation anxiety, as well as selective mutism. She has been out of school for more than two years, since December 2021, and is currently receiving a package of alternative education.
Her mother, Victoria McConachie, said: “It would be amazing if there was a school that could meet her need but I think sometimes a lot of the special schools currently in Northampton only cater for certain needs.
“Often, for a child like Amelie who’s been in that system and then been traumatized by it, that’s not how they learn best. From our point of view, they just need to provide her an alternative to being in a classroom if there isn’t a suitable one.
“It’s almost like she’s not in school and they don’t have to think about it. It’s out of sight out of mind.”
An EOTAS package (education other than at school) is supposed to be provided when ‘a child of compulsory school age would not otherwise receive suitable education’. The education must be ‘full time, unless the local authority determines that, for reasons relating to the physical or mental health of the child, a reduced level of education would be in the child’s best interests’.
According to Victoria, the council is funding Amelie to go to animal therapy and a few occupational therapy sessions. She said that she is being left to give her daughter academic work and is having to go to an education tribunal to request more.
“It’s pretty much just me doing it with her. I just don’t think they understand the realities and almost don’t understand what my daughter needs despite her having this EHCP.
“The nearest school I found that offered therapeutic learning was about an hour and a half away in Cambridgeshire and that’s not ever going to work for a child who can’t leave the house to go to Tescos.”
Victoria said that Amelie had been traumatised by school and struggled to communicate her needs to staff. She believes that if her daughter had received the proper support earlier she could’ve coped in mainstream schooling.
“I was trying to force her to go because you’re told that’s the best place. She’s got massive trust issues after being in school and not having her needs met.
“Because she academically was very bright I think they thought there wasn’t an issue. It got to the point where she just hid under a duvet and couldn’t get out.
“It is always like you’re trying to fight a system- you’re trying to fight to prove your child has these needs and then you’re trying to fight to get them support. The whole thing’s just so broken.
“I just want her to have a proper package of support so she can actually function in the world. Right now our home has become her world.”
Cllr Fiona Baker, Cabinet Member for Children, Families, Education and Skills at WNC said: “The approval for Tiffield specialist school to go ahead is a real step forward for our children, young people and their families and will help to provide 250 much-needed places to meet the significant demand we are seeing for local SEND provision in West Northants.
“This is part of our wider programme of creating 600 new specialist places locally – with the focus of placements for this particular school providing support to children and young people with autistic spectrum condition (ASC) and have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), as well as those with severe learning difficulties (SLD) which is an area of huge demand we are seeing, that we currently have a greater shortfall in provision for.
“Even though this is a positive step forward for many, we know that this is not a solution for all and we are working hard to provide much needed support in all areas. In addition to continuing our commitment of creating 600 new specialist places, we are working with all schools and learning providers across West Northants to embed the graduated response to ensure children’s needs are identified as early as possible and met in the best way.
“We are also reviewing the needs of all children to understand if and when additional specialist provision is needed.”