A new ‘free’ special school, known as The Flagship School, is being planned for the former Helenswood Upper site on the Ridge. On 20th September East Sussex County Council (ESCC) resolved to transfer ownership of the site to the Department for Education (DfE). It is anticipated that planning permission will in due course be sought for at least part demolition of the existing buildings and construction of new ones, with the building cost funded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency. The Flagship trustees have indicated on their website that they expect the school to open in September 2021.

The initial plan is to accommodate 56 pupils resident in Hastings or Rother between ages of 9 and 16 (Year 5 up to Year 11) who are diagnosed as having high-functioning autism and/or social, behavioural and communication difficulties. But the trustees say that they will look for potential expansion of these numbers in the future in order to respond to “the growing need”.

Their website declares: “Our aim is to enable all pupils who attend The Flagship School to make excellent progress academically, therapeutically and socio-behaviourally, preparing them for full, independent lives. It is our expectation that pupils attending the school will be functioning cognitively at an age-appropriate level and meeting age-related expectations.”

ESCC will initially receive a token £1 from the DfE for the transfer of the land, plus “clawback overage provisions” which have not been disclosed. 

The decision to divest itself of the premises was not made with universal acclaim within the council. Whilst lead member for resources, Cllr Nick Bennett, said he thought it was “a good use of the land…I am happy the overage is satisfactory to safeguard our future interests”, Hastings councillor Godfrey Daniel, co-leader of the Labour group, was less enthusiastic. “I don’t actually support free schools”, he said. “I would much rather see a school with someone from education in control and the county council safeguards therein”.

In general, special schools are sufficiently funded to allow much smaller class sizes. Teaching and study should be geared to the child’s individual needs. Children have a peer group with similar needs, so they may feel less ‘different’ and find it easier to make friends. But obviously the success of any school depends crucially on the quality and performance of individual administrative and teaching staff. 

Those may vary substantially. In March this year St Mary’s College in Bexhill, an academy trust providing education for children with special needs from age seven upwards, was found by Ofsted to be “inadequate” in many areas: there had been “poor leadership” (five heads in two years) and a resulting “culture of blame”; teaching standards had declined; “pupils are at risk of harm because leaders at all levels are failing to fulfil their statutory duties”.

Conversely, even if the quality of education of The Flagship School proves altogether satisfactory, parents seeking entry for their child will depend, as for other special needs provision, on the tortuous process of securing an Education, Health and Care Plan that matches what is offered. Local parents have long complained that ESCC raises bureaucratic bars to special needs applications with the aim, or at least the effect, of curtailing its statutory funding obligations; many only succeed by taking an expensive legal route via a Tribunal appeal.

The “vision” of the Flagship School, as set out on its website, is to “provide a holistic learning environment which has high aspirations for all of our children and where they can realise their full potential.” Like all schools, one would hope.


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