Tuesday, 19 April 2011

New developments at Bright Futures School (including covert operations)

Exciting things are happening at our school…..last week we finally got to a position where we were able to formally publicise the school.  We did it in style in an interview with the local paper (hey – for us, that’s style!), complete with our very own celebrity Patron, an actor named John Henshaw, who lives locally.

In order to secure the patronage of the lovely Mr Henshaw I 'went dark' a week previously to track him down.  Well, ok, it wasnt that glamorous, but I did feel a bit secret agent-ish, and I was certainly on a mission.  I knew John lived locally as I’d seen him previously walking along the canal with friends, so I asked about in shops until I finally struck gold with my dentist, who told me which local watering hole John frequents.  I went home, prepared some information about our school, wrote an introductory letter, bundled it all up and left the whole shebang behind the bar of his local pub, having got the agreement of the pub landlady to pass it on later that night.  A few days later, John phoned me, we had a good chat and he offered to come up to the school to be interviewed and photographed with us. 

I have to tell you he is a really kind man – so totally unstarry, genuine and down to earth…….my kinda fella.  Here is a bit of blurb about him.


So – why, when we opened in September 2010, has it taken us so long to publicise the school and recruit new pupils?

 We currently have 6 families actively seeking a placement for their children.  The problem for us is that ‘actively seeking a placement’ is a very broad spectrum and involves very different (and often, protracted) timescales.

I know I have readers from different countries, so I think I’d better explain a little bit about the hoops that families have to jump through to secure a placement at a Special school here in the UK.  We have different kinds of school placements – broadly speaking these fall into 3 categories: mainstream schools, special schools and private schools. Placements in mainstream schools are funded by the state via the local authority in which the pupil’s family resides.  (I think the US equivalent of a local authority is a school district?)

Private schools usually require pupils to pass some kind of entrance exam and/or pay out expensive school fees with placements being funded solely by parents – so usually places in this type of school are the preserve of more wealthy families.

Special schools can be either run by an individual local authority or run by independent organisations.  Our school – Bright Futures School - is an independent special school that is run by the charity we set up, Bright Futures.

To secure a placement in a Special School, a pupil needs a statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN).  The statement sets out what the child’s educational needs are and what provision should be put in place to meet these needs.  It then identifies the school placement that will meet the needs.  The statement is a legal document and the local authority currently has the statutory duty to ensure that statements of SEN are made and maintained.

The journey towards getting a statement can be a very long and arduous one.  Often parents aren’t aware of their rights and entitlements and I repeatedly come across situations where parents tell me that their child hasn’t got a statement because when they enquired about getting one, the school told them they ‘would have no chance’.  In fact I was on the phone to a Mum earlier tonight who told me this exact story.

It is not the school’s business to be deciding which child will or won’t get a statement ahead of any formal assessment of need – but when a family isn’t familiar with the process and trusts the teachers to do the best for their child…………..you can see how easy it is to fall into this trap.

So….it can take time initially to set the wheels in motion on the statementing journey.  The actual assessment of need itself can take up to 26 weeks, as evidence has to be gathered from a variety of professionals.  Then at the end of the process, many families find that the local authority disagrees with their view of which placement would meet the needs of the child and the family finds that they have no alternative but to challenge the local authority in an SEN tribunal.  It generally takes about 3 months for a hearing to be scheduled.

Only two out of our six prospective families have children who already have statements.  One of these families initially visited back in February and we have just had a letter from their local authority asking us to consider a placement for their child.

This is a big milestone for us as it means, if it all works out, that the school will be just about viable once our initial grant runs out.  We’re not popping the champers corks just yet, but it was a big relief to get that letter JJ and it means I am no longer having to scour the internet for charity-friendly bridging loans…………..

We are currently funded by a grant that we secured from the Social Enterprise Investment Fund.  The grant runs out at the end of this academic year, so right from the start it has been really important to us to attract additional pupils to the school as quickly as possible.

We have been informally spreading the word about our school since we opened but have held back from undertaking a proper publicity drive until we had reached two key milestones.  The first was securing ‘change of use’ for the building that we rent, which actually is a domestic residence.  We had to apply to our local authority to change the use of the building from domestic residence to school.  Initially our planning application was rejected as there were concerns about cars reversing into the main road from the school drive.  We have had to negotiate with our landlords and with the local authority for a turning space on the drive so that cars could leave the premises facing forwards.

The next hurdle was Ofsted – this is the government appointed body that regulates and inspects schools.  We have recently passed our inspection and are shortly to be officially registered as an independent Special School.

So, last week, some eight months after we opened the school, we are finally ready to officially publicise it.  Never thought it would take us that long…..but we had to get all our ducks lined up, as it were.  No use publicising the school only to have change of use or our application to become a Special School rejected.

The feature is appearing in the paper sometime this week.  Once that is in print, we will also contact the national papers to see if we can get any interest there.  I asked the local journalist who interviewed me how likely it was that a national paper would run with our story and he seemed genuinely quite hopeful, given that we are using a new approach to autism education (using a 'guiding' methodology that is heavily influenced by RDI) and – as far as we know – we are the first school in the UK to do so. 

So – watch this space!  J

Our school’s web site is www.brightfuturesschool.co.uk

Oooooh – before I go, check out the new gadget I’ve added to my blog.  It’s under the pics of blog followers and it’s entitled ‘follow by email’.  If you put your email address in there and then click ‘submit’ it should mean that you receive an email every time there is a new blogpost.  Thanks to Di for spotting this and letting me know and thank you Blogger for adding this gadget.  I know it will make a real difference to some of my followers who’ve been waiting patiently for something like this to be introduced. 

Happy (improved) following!


  1. I didn't know his name but his face is so well known in the UK - if only from the Post Office adverts. I still love 'Early Doors' !

  2. Zoe you are so driven - wishing you, your publicity, the school & future pupils much success - Sharon

  3. @ Brendan - yep, he was also v good in 'Cops' and totally cringeworthy (in a good way, dramatically) in 'The Royle Family' where he played the lecherous Dad of Anthony (Lurkio)'s girlfriend.

    @ Sharon - thanks. It's a big challenge but very rewarding. Re being driven - I think it's the combination of me and Dixon (my husband) that makes the difference. We are quite a formidable team when we get going!!

  4. Zoe,

    This is so exciting. I am just at the beginning of attempting to start the process of dreaming (can you sense early days?) a school here called The School of Possibility. I'm hanging on your every word!

    Good luck with everything. I have no idea what, but if I can do anything from Australia, just ask!

    You are an inspiration, in many ways!


  5. Thanks Valerie. Just knowing people are rooting for us makes a difference.

    Love the name of your school. Having a dream is where we started :) Happy to exchange ideas if that's any help.