A drive to stem the rising number of pupils being excluded from schools and cut costs has been approved, despite a warnings it would hit vulnerable youngsters, mainstream schools and society at large.
North Yorkshire County Council’s leaders vehemently dismissed claims that swingeing cuts to its Pupil Referral Service – which caters for excluded students – and a fresh focus on keeping pupils in mainstream schools would be akin to “dumping those most at risk in second-rate holding pens”.
A meeting of the authority’s executive at County Hall in Northallerton saw members unanimously pass a phased reduction in discretionary funding to the county’s seven pupil referral units service, which will see the service continue to receive 50 per cent of current funding until September next year.
The Conservative leadership also approved funding places for permanently excluded students in alternative provision at the current £19,000 per place until September and then at £18,000 per place, rather than the £17k as detailed in the original proposal.
The proposals will reduce almost £2m of the £5.5m overspend on North Yorkshire’s high needs budget of £44.2m.
The meeting heard from a succession of teachers and parents that the council’s aspiration to minimise exclusions would not be achieved overnight and that pupils were being permanently excluded for issues that should be managed by mainstream schools.
The likely consequences of the cuts, the meeting heard, would be a worsening of mental health issues in the county, rising truancy and child exploitation and anti-social behaviour.
English teacher Alex Boyce, who works at Grove Academy Pupils Referral Unit in Harrogate, said the changes would remove a safety net for the vulnerable children and that there would be nothing left to fill the gap.
Les Bell, headteacher of the unit in Selby, said the changes were not dealing with the root causes of the rise in exclusions, which included an increase in diagnosed mental health issues, schools’ zero tolerance policies, a narrowing of curriculum and reduced funding to schools.
The authority’s education boss Councillor Patrick Mulligan, who received a petition from campaigners before the meeting, said the current funding for the service had traditionally been “generous” and the council would now use the funding it had for rising numbers of special educational needs students in the most cost-effective way.
After repeatedly hearing appeals to delay the implementing the changes to enable the change in culture to be embraced, Cllr Mulligan said: “Exclusion rates are rising year on year. If we leave it a few more years more pupils will be excluded. Our proposal will create an immediacy for actions to reduce exclusion.”
He said the driver for the changes was to cut rising numbers of exclusions, which was currently happening despite finances being pumped into tackling the issue.
Cllr Mulligan concluded the changes were a “reasonable compromise” after having taken on board comments made during its “fair and thorough” consultation process.