When news happens, text ROMS and your photos or videos to 80360. Or contact us by email and phone.
Charity bosses hold out little hope for threatened Hope Lodge School
“WE don’t want it to close either – but we are faced with little option.”
That is what charity bosses had to say today about the proposed closure of their special school for severely autistic children which has left parents devastated.
Hampshire Autistic Society (HAS) chiefs laid the blame on a drastic fall in pupil referrals funded by local authorities – which they say leaves Hope Lodge School in Southampton facing losses of almost half a million pounds and makes it unsustainable in the future.
The drop in numbers is due to the Government’s policy to include children with specialist needs into more mainstream education.
Even though a final decision is still to be made, only a miracle – or a saviour with a blank cheque – looks set to save it, bosses say.
It is not a decision the charity says it ever wants to make – or will make lightly – when their consultation comes to an end and a final call is made by trustees next month.
As revealed by the Daily Echo yesterday, parents and governors learned in a letter of the shattering news that the plan was to close the Midanbury Lane school.
The children who currently attend the school face the trauma of being placed elsewhere.
It was originally thought that some 140 jobs could be at risk, but bosses say that figure is actually nearer to 60 staff, including teachers and support workers, who will be affected.
Bosses from the charity revealed that alarm bells started to ring some 15 months ago and the trustees commissioned a feasibility study in spring last year.
By November 2011, the completed report, which included input from local councils, was put before the board and the picture was bleak.
Hope Lodge has been operational for more than 40 years and is the heart and soul of HAS, also caring for children with Asperger’s Syndrome.
There are currently 28 pupils attending the school, who are aged 16 and under.
However, by July this year the number of youngsters who will still qualify to be there will sink to just 11 as councils strive to meet Government guidelines on inclusion into local authority special schools.
Despite the charity pumping tens of thousands of pounds into Hope Lodge to freshen its “tired look” only last summer, the huge drop in pupil numbers is likely to sound the death knell for the property – unless a miracle occurs.
Each pupil deemed to be suitable for the school is funded by their local authority to the tune of up to £50,000 a year and the charity says it needs about 30 such referrals to break even.
Speaking to the Daily Echo, Mike Walsh, head of support services for the organisation, said that there are simply fewer people being referred to HAS – which had 55 pupils on its books in its heyday – and it has been steadily decreasing for the past five years.
In particular, three years ago the school had 11 pupils who reached the age of 16 and left – never to be replaced – and the charity “never recovered from that”.
He blamed increased competition from other sectors and local education authorities being restricted financially as well as Hope Lodge failing to attract a suitable permanent head teacher who will be there long-term.
An acting head teacher is currently in charge of the school.
Mr Walsh said: “This is not something we want to do or will do lightly, but we have to be realistic. The hope is that somebody else will come forward with an idea that we have not thought of, that will mean this does not happen.”
Pauline Quan Arrow, chairman of HAS, said: “It’s not like we have not been agonising ourselves for months. We have done a lot of leg work but unless someone comes up with a blank cheque book there is probably not much else we have not explored.
“There has always been a real commitment to the school – it was the start point of HAS – and there has been a lot of lost sleep and privately shed tears.”
The pair pointed to “a particularly difficult year” adding: “we have not seen anywhere near the level of people coming in”.
They added: “We didn’t ever want to think we would really have to lose Hope Lodge – you just keep thinking and hoping you have all the plans to address it, by cutting back in different areas.
“It is difficult and emotional for everyone involved and we deeply share and recognise that.
“If this is to happen, that we have to close the school, then we will do all we can, working with each and every family affected, to look at the alternatives.”
Ten people form the HAS trust board and will make the final decision on the future of Hope Lodge at the end of April.
Four of them are parents whose children have previously been pupils at the school.