Special educational needs: How one school is fighting for futures in a broken system

  • Rob Setchell spent a day filming at Highfield Academy in Ely, Cambridgeshire.

The morning rushes by in a noisy blur.

The head's walkie talkie blares with behaviour reports, Holly serenades her music therapy teacher on the lyre and the trill of Mara's giggling echoes through the corridors. She's got stuck trying to get into her Scooby Doo costume.

Outside, Jasper is in his element. He's feeding the new school goat - named by public vote, inevitably, as Goaty McGoatface.

Goaty is the centrepiece of a fledgling school farm, one which has helped foster Jasper's dream of working with animals. The 16-year-old has Down's syndrome and has been at Highfield Ely Academy, in Cambridgeshire, since he was a little boy.

"It means a lot," he tells us. "This school has been my whole life."

Jasper Grooms tending to goats on the fledgling school farm at Highfield Academy. Credit: ITV News Anglia

We're here to film a typical day at a special school trying to navigate its way through a system in crisis, with provision unable to keep pace with demand.

There are more than 130 pupils at Highfield, aged four to 22, with a broad range of learning disabilities and additional needs.

Places are in demand. There are 80 applications for just 15 spaces in September.

Head of School Adam Daw is constantly worried about how they'll cope financially. The funding he receives per pupil hasn't changed, he says, in a decade.

"Unless something changes at a national level, within a couple of years we're into the red," he says.

"We can't afford to go broke. We're not allowed to go bust as a school and nobody can answer what would happen if we did."

Adam Daw, Head of School at Highfield Academy. Credit: ITV News Anglia

What would be likely to happen is cuts. In recent years, Mr Daw has had to lose seven teaching assistant posts to balance the books.

He's desperate to avoid cutting one-to-one and specialist sessions, which make such a difference to young lives.

"This isn't about babysitting," says Mr Daw. "This is about engagement in life. Progress. The right to enjoy your life whatever your level of need.

"It is absolutely no good to have the same politicians spinning the same nonsense again and again about more funding being put in education for the longest time ever. There are more human beings in education for the longest time ever so of course it's going to go up.

"We need politicians who care about children and children's progress. Not about grades and graphs but actually about individual young people."

The government's SEND review acknowledges that the "increasingly complex and adversarial system" is failing thousands of families and children.

Ministers have unveiled a SEND improvement plan, including funding to train thousands of workers and build 33 new special free schools across the country.

In the meantime, schools like Highfield continue to try their best in challenging circumstances.

We meet 13-year-old Jayden in his science class. In mainstream education, he felt achievements and ambitions were for other people. At Highfield, he's got routine he can follow and targets he can meet.

"I was seven years down in my work at my old school," he says. "But I've come up a bit more here. I want to be a zookeeper but also I want to be a plumber."

By lunchtime, the presence of a television camera in school is causing quite a stir.

Ollie insists he has popped out of class for a "movement break" rather than to check what we're up to. Henry has pitched us a new television show and brought us a glass of water in case we're thirsty.

And Cathy's class are abuzz with excitement at the prospect of their game of cards being filmed. Cathy started as a teaching assistant but now has her own class.

Cathy Brown with her class at Highfield Academy. Credit: ITV News Anglia

She has drawn on personal experience of struggling with the formalities of mainstream school to offer them advice.

"I really struggled to organise my own thoughts a lot of the time," she said.

"I was able to have a conversation with a student who has ADHD and say this is how I organise my thoughts.

"They were able to use that process themselves as well - so just being able to share your own experiences with them really helps."

Mr Daw says that, for all the challenges, he still comes to work with a smile.

"You get to see the children's journeys. You see them when they come in when they're five and you see them at prom, when they leave, all suited and booted.

"They'll go off and do different things. Some will go to further education, some will go to a social enterprise or to social care.

"But they can succeed. They can have full rewarding lives but they need the system to be behind them."

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