Teachers have delivered impassioned pleas to councillors to halt plans to cut funding for pupil referral units, issuing a warning it could have a “catastrophic” effect on mainstream schools.
Alex Boyce and Richard Hughes, who work at Grove Academy Pupils Referral Unit in Harrogate, spoke at a full meeting of North Yorkshire County Council to highlight their concerns over proposals to cuts of “at least 50 per cent” across the county’s seven specialist units.
Mr Hughes told the council chamber the likely effects of the cuts would be a worsening of the “adolescent mental health crisis”, increasing truancy and child exploitation and anti-social behaviour.
He said: “This huge cut would of course be disastrous for this excellent service and mean at best downsizing, if not closure.
“The severe damage would be to the students themselves, many of whom are the most vulnerable in the area, but then to their families, who often struggle with their own personal, social and health issues.
“The impact on mainstream schools will potentially be catastrophic.
“They cannot cope with further special educational needs demands, as evidenced by the increasing number of exclusions.”
English teacher Mr Boyce told members while the authority planned to stop schools excluding disruptive pupils when the last three years in North Yorkshire had seen a 42 per cent increase in fixed-term exclusions.
He said the soaring exclusions were an “unfortunate and unintended consequence of the Government’s strong focus on school standards”.
After opposition councillors described the proposals as “counter-intuitive” and a “sad state of affairs”, the council’s Conservative leaders said transforming its special educational needs policy was vital.
The authority’s education boss, Councillor Patrick Mulligan, said the issue centred on efforts to reduce the number of pupils being excluded from schools.
“When a child is excluded from school it is severely damaging to their life opportunities. In the past there has been £2.5m discretionary funding for referral services specifically to reduce exclusion and that has not worked.
“Over the last four or five years we have seen permanent exclusions almost double. So we are trying to do something different.”
Councillor Janet Sanderson, the council’s children’s services boss, added while the proposals would help manage mounting demand on the special educational needs budget, making savings was not the main reason behind the authority’s strategy.
She said: “When the pressure is on we have a proven track record for transforming and improving services.
“If we were in the enviable position of having no financial pressure in the budget whatsoever we would still go down this road because ultimately we believe it is the right thing to do.”