I write to formally object to plans by Wiltshire Council to close Larkrise School in my constituency.
Larkrise is classified as good by Ofsted. It has the active support of the community and engagement with the community is a very special feature of school life. Larkrise is well loved by its students and their families. It is located centrally in Trowbridge which is the county town.
The council is right to want to improve provision for students with special educational needs. I am pleased that it will underpin its commitment by spending £20 million. It has correctly identified that something needs to be done but, in my view, come up with the wrong solution, one that will disadvantage those I represent.
Wiltshire council appears to have designed a solution before adequately exploring unfulfilled need. I regret to say that the council has been intent on closing Larkrise for a long time. I recall a wholly specious argument placed in the public domain about hoists being unfit for purpose which was simply incorrect and was distressing. The council’s single minded approach to creating a very large school near Devizes and closing down more local provision seems odd and its argument strained.
My experience over many years and as an ex governor of a special school has been that the most traumatic part of the school day for students and their families is travel to and from school. I believe the authors of the plan have seriously misunderstood the importance of this. The proposals would make that feature of the school day so much worse. I would say that the transport consideration is at least as important as the extra services that the council is saying can only be provided through its proposed new school near Devizes.
The student population in question responds best to smaller, more intimate settings. Given than this is generally accepted, the closure of three small schools and their replacement with one catering for 350 pupils seems perverse.
To a greater extent than is the case for mainstream pupils, special needs students are likely to remain in their locality into adulthood. Consequently, familiarity and local links are so much more important. That is well understood at Larkrise where community involvement and inculcation with the locality are defining features of the school experience. That is a model that should be emulated, not undermined. I fear the centralising proposals will destroy one of the very great merits of special needs schooling for my constituents.
I share the council’s desire to reduce out of county placement, particularly where this is disproportionately costly as a result of private placement or involves unreasonable travel. However, I am not convinced that the council has maximally explored joint working with neighbouring authorities. I have no principled objection to Wiltshire students being educated just across the border or students from neighbouring counties being schooled in Wiltshire. What matters is what works for them, commensurate with affordability.
The council has said that the Larkrise site is inadequate, that its buildings are old and that the footprint as it is is insufficient for current demand and for the future. I agree. However, I do not accept that the council has done all it can to identify an alternative site or sites, particularly given the availability of nearby brownfield assets and the large scale greenfield home building programme with attendant infrastructure including mainstream schools underway around Trowbridge and in West Wiltshire generally.
Finally, can I finish by saying that I welcome the attention being given by Wiltshire Council to special needs and its willingness to invest. I feel strongly that its plan is misconceived and I look forward to working with it to achieve an outcome that improves the school experience of some of my most vulnerable constituents.
DR ANDREW MURRISON MP