I have recently been in contact with the County Council Cabinet Member for Education & Skills, Councillor Zahir Mohammed, and the office of the Secretary of State for Education to see what might be done for Penn School. Councillor Zahir has been working closely with officials, meeting parents on Monday. I have also pored over the School’s inspection reports.
I know the situation is causing substantial anxiety and it is clear why.
At the inspection of 8-9 May 2013, the school was found “Inadequate” when it had previously been found “Good”. The following strengths were found:
- Pupils feel safe at school. Students report that there is no bullying. They are confident staff will sort things out for them.
- The school’s nurturing approach helps students who have been unhappy in other schools to settle well and begin to enjoy school life.
Given that the school teaches some of the most vulnerable students, with communication difficulties associated with hearing impairment, autistic spectrum disorder or speech and language difficulties, it is obvious why a school with these strengths should be so beloved.
Unfortunately, the inspection report also found groups of students were underachieving with more able students not being challenged enough. Those with the most complex needs were not making enough progress. Teaching was found inadequate and information about progress was not accurate. Actions to make improvements were too slow and ineffective. Accommodation was found unsuitable, failing to “provide for basics such as privacy”. The school was not meeting 20 of the national minimum standards for residential special schools. Criticisms were made of senior leaders and governors.
The school was rightly placed into special measures. As late as 26 March 2015 (PDF), the school was “making reasonable progress towards the removal of special measures.” The inspection report of 6-7 May 2015 moved the school from “Inadequate” to “Requires improvement”.
After the school went into special measures, pupil numbers dropped to a level where it was no longer financially viable. I understand there are restrictions on sending children to schools which are not meeting certain standards. Too few pupils were due to attend the school from September.
Penn school is a private, non-maintained school: I am advised neither the Department for Education nor the County Council have a remit to use taxpayers’ money to save an independent school with poor performance and low pupil numbers.
The decision to close Penn School was taken by the Governors and Trustees after discussions with the Department of Education and Bucks County Council found no solution to enable the school to continue operating. It was evidently an exceptionally difficult decision to take.
The school will close at the end of July: this means the 50 pupils will be able to start at new schools at the beginning of a new academic year. The Education Funding Agency would be content to use the remaining funds in the school to provide additional cash to local authorities to help the transition process: that should be done if at all possible.
The wellbeing of the children and young people must be everyone’s priority in this exceptionally sad situation. Officials from the Department are now working with the local authorities representing all the students to find the best possible alternative placements for every child and young person. Every effort will be made to ensure alternative and suitable schools are offered to the pupils and their parents.
I deeply regret that Penn School is to close as a result of financial constraints following a period in special measures. It is a difficult and emotional time but the over-riding priority now is to focus on ensuring the best future for every pupil in alternative provision, in time for the new term.