Controversial plans to shut down after school and holiday clubs for children with special needs in East Sussex have been given the go ahead.
At a meeting on Monday (July 16), East Sussex County Council’s lead member for education and inclusion Bob Standley approved the closure of the authority’s After School Clubs and Holiday Play Schemes.
Cllr Standley also approved the release of a 24-month transitional funding arrangement – six months more than what was originally recommended by officers. The council says this funding will be used to assist schools in setting up a replacement service.
He said: “I am going to say to officers that we need to extend [the funding] to 24 months, which will give us that much more time for monitoring and working with schools.
“I know this service is of value to parents but by working with schools we can find a solution.”
Cllr Standley added that the council would be monitoring the schools’ arrangements to set up a replacement service and will assisting with bids to seek additional funding.
The service closure has been strongly criticised by parents and carers, with a large group taking part in a protest outside County Hall before the meeting began.
Claire Watts, whose 14-year-old daughter Cerys attends an after-school club twice a week, was among those calling on the council to maintain the service.
She said: “As things stand the service may well end on September 1 and we don’t know from there what we will be provided with, or even if will be provided with anything at all.
“I would like to invite the [councillors] to come to my home, even if just for a couple of hours, so they can see what it is really like and to see why we need this respite and to see why our kids need these clubs.
“We are not talking about your average child who you can take into town or to the cinema. They can’t cope with that sort of thing. They have very little in their lives as it is and if this is going to be taken away from them, then it is absolutely shameful.”
The service closure was also criticised by several opposition councillors during the meeting.
John Ungar, Liberal Democrat councillor for Eastbourne Old Town, said: “It is very important that as a local authority we do everything we can to provide for the special needs these children have.
“These are children who are in desperate need. We need to be sure that they receive the services that they, as individuals, need. We need to be sure that they as individuals will have their service need met.”
Cllr Ungar also raised concerns about the treatment of the 27 staff employed as part of the service, who he said had received redundancy notices before the meeting took place.
Concerns were also raised by Trevor Webb, leader of the council’s Labour group, about what will happen once the transitional funding finishes.
Cllr Webb said: “There doesn’t seem to have been any thinking about what actually happens if, in the next 18 months, the schools decide they cannot cope.
“In my 21 years at this county council I cannot remember a proposed cessation of service without a new service being secured. There’s got to be a danger [here].”
However there was some support for the plans from Sylvia Tidy, Conservative councillor for Crowborough South and St Johns, who has personal experience of respite care.
Addressing parents in the public gallery, Cllr Tidy, who is also the lead member for children and families, said: “I was a parent in your position, exactly the same position as you, before my son died. I do know how much work you put in and how difficult it is to fight for your child’s education.
“I know how difficult it is when things change. Every time somebody came to me and said ‘there is change’ I was really concerned and felt it was all about to end. But something I did learn over the years, was that every time there was a change it actually was to the benefit to my son.
“The worst thing would be is if our own funding had run out and we had made no arrangements at all.
“We are helping as much as we can, and I know it isn’t easy for you, but I hope you will go away reassured that there will be after-school clubs and the school themselves will provide you with them.”
Cllr Tidy also said she hoped more people would end up using the clubs once a replacement service is set up.
The council currently runs the service for children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) at six special schools in East Sussex.
They are: South Downs Community Special School, Hazel Court School and Lindfield School in Eastbourne; Torfield School and Saxon Mount School in Hastings; and Grove Park School in Crowborough.