Merging underfunded West London special school would be 'catastrophic' for autistic children

Parents have sounded the alarm over the planned transfer of a West London autism school to a new multi-academy trust, warning the impact would be 'catastrophic' for the kids. They have also railed against the 'underfunding' of Queensmill School by the council, which they say has not only led to the expected transfer but also caused issues including a lack of therapists on-site.

Queensmill School in Shepherd’s Bush supports children between the ages of three and 19, all of whom have an autism diagnosis, an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP), and are working at academic levels well below expected for their age.

It became part of The Queensmill Trust in 2021, which as well as Queensmill School includes provisions such as Kensington Queensmill, a school in Kensington and Chelsea.

The Trust says that for the last decade or so, Queensmill School has not received the 'top-up funding' requested from Hammersmith and Fulham Council. ‘Top-up funding’ is a form of income, provided by local authorities, which is calculated by schools to meet pupils' EHCPs. Providers are legally bound to fulfil the contents of EHCPs, and could be taken to court if they are not delivered.

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Around 70 per cent of the pupils at Queensmill School are from Hammersmith and Fulham, with the remaining 30 per cent from boroughs including Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster. Of the local authorities which place children at the school, the Trust says all have been paying the top-up funding requested by Queensmill, other than Hammersmith and Fulham.

In a press release issued earlier this year, The Queensmill Trust wrote: “The Trust has consistently made clear to H&F for a number of years now that its level of top-up funding was insufficient. It was only in April 2023 that H&F eventually agreed to any increase at all but it was much lower than needed and amounted to the equivalent of just a 1 per cent annual increase since 2013.”

Ageno Ochola (l) and Lisha Rooney (r) both have children attending Queensmill School
Ageno Ochola (l) and Lisha Rooney (r) both have children attending Queensmill School -Credit:LDRS

A spokesperson for Hammersmith and Fulham Council said the local authority has a record of investment in the school, with recent support including a £72,000 supplementary grant for one year from April 2022 and £235,000 additional High Needs Grant per annum from April 2023.

They added the council has commissioned a School Resource Management Review to better understand Queensmill’s use of resources and any funding uplifts required, with an implementation plan to be agreed upon once the process has been completed.

Parents with children attending Queensmill have said it has been a ‘blessing’ for them and their families.

'[School] is the only reason really why I’m sitting here and we are still going'

Lisha Rooney, 49, who is also the Chair of Governors at the school, said it was a ‘big deal’ getting her son in. Keen to avoid a school which used Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), a form of therapy designed to help kids with autism, she approached Queensmill directly in the hope it would secure him a place.

Ms Rooney, who lives in Westminster, said the wraparound service Queensmill provides is essential for parents with autistic children. “I think they’ve been a lifeline,” she said. “I think it’s a refuge for some of the most vulnerable human beings in this country.”

Ageno Ochola, 49, added that a lot of people do not understand autism, with many typically thinking of the ‘Hollywood version' of Rain Man.

“The school pretty much just lifted that burden off me, and is the only reason really why I’m sitting here and we are still going,” she said. “We are exhausted, we are just exhausted. Sometimes I feel bad because I feel like the work that Queensmill does here is more like babysitting.”

Queensmill School became part of the Queensmill Trust in 2021
Queensmill School became part of The Queensmill Trust in 2021 -Credit:LDRS

Aishatu Dapchi, 44, who also has a son attending Queensmill, said she did not properly know what autism was until she had her son. However, she claimed that as soon as she walked through the doors, she said: “I knew I was in the right place”.

She added: “The school takes on so much of our burdens, the kids’ burdens. Sometimes I feel guilty that we leave them with so much, even just one hour with our kids is a lot.”

She continued: “The school is like a second arm, a second family. We can go to them for academic, personal, emotional, everything needs.”

All three said the school has had issues such as retaining and recruiting staff and maintaining the site due to underfunding. Ms Dapchi specifically mentions the lack of speech and language therapists, with increased outgoings such as rising teachers’ salaries eroding the school’s finances.

They also raised concerns about the fact The Queensmill Trust is in the process of joining Ormiston Academies Trust due to its precarious financial situation. A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson confirmed the transfer of The Queensmill Trust schools to Ormiston is in a bid to ensure its future sustainability.

Ms Rooney said the move could be ‘catastrophic’ for the kids, due to Ormiston not having the same level of autism-specific experience. "How can they create a budget when they haven't spent much time here, and they don't actually understand autism?"

'Our staff are not well paid, but they just love the kids so they are prepared to work so hard'

Jude Ragan, 75, a former headteacher at Queensmill School and a current Trustee, said she is 'shocked that a Labour council would do this year on year'. Describing herself as a life-long socialist, she said the local authority 'demonstrably owe us money for services we have provided'.

“Why Hammersmith and Fulham aren’t thrilled that we are always there and always saying yep, we’ll do that, yep, we’ll take him…I just don’t understand it.”

Ms Ragan added the situation has left her ‘inconsolable’. “Our staff are not well paid, but they just love the kids so they are prepared to work so hard to train, to hone their practice,” she said.

Picture of Queensmill School
The Queensmill Trust schools are in the process of being transferred to Ormiston Academies Trust in a bid to ensure its future sustainability -Credit:LDRS

Conservative councillor Jose Afonso said it is a 'disgrace' that the council has failed to provide the requested funding uplift. "[The council's] careless approach has put Queensmill School in a perilous financial situation and is risking the wellbeing on hundreds of autistic children throughout our borough.”

A Judicial Review was requested by The Queensmill Trust into Hammersmith and Fulham’s funding of Queensmill School earlier this year. It is understood this was refused, however, with the trust due to appeal the decision later this month.

A spokesperson for Hammersmith and Fulham Council said: “Queensmill School is an Academy with a funding agreement directly with the Department for Education and is independent of local authority control.

“The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) issued the school with a Notice to Improve letter in March 2023, arising from its non-compliance with its funding agreement. We are committed to supporting Queensmill to meet the needs of its pupils and provide value for public resources.

“The ESFA continues to provide significant funding to Queensmill and has made this support contingent upon the voluntary transfer to a new Academy Trust. We are working closely with the Department for Education, Queensmill School and any new Academy Trust for an orderly transition for Queensmill pupils and the wider school community.

“Hammersmith and Fulham continues to work with Queensmill, the DfE and its agencies to understand its funding challenges and develop a long-term strategy for a sustainable delivery model.

“To support this, we recently commissioned a School Resource Management Review for a shared understanding of the school’s use of its resources, opportunities for improvement and any funding uplifts that may be needed. We are nearing the end of this process and will soon be agreeing an implementation plan with Queensmill, the DfE and other relevant partners.”

A spokesperson for Ormiston Academies Trust said: “Ormiston Academies Trust is a values-driven organisation with a strong belief in the importance of inclusion and high-quality education for children and young people with special needs and disabilities. We currently operate 42 schools nationally which includes three alternative provision settings in West London and a special school in Suffolk.

“The trustees of both Queensmill and Ormiston have agreed in principle for Queensmill’s schools to transfer to Ormiston and we are now engaging with parents, staff and other stakeholders. We hope that they will be as excited as we are that this move will enable Queensmill schools to continue providing valuable specialist provision and to give them the secure future they need.”

The Queensmill Trust said it did not wish to comment.

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