“Children are scared and embarrassed”: Concerns raised over treatment of pupils with special educational needs at Houghton Regis school ahead of merger

Students write in their exercise books in class. Picture: Ben Birchall/PAStudents write in their exercise books in class. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA
Students write in their exercise books in class. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA
Concerned parents of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) at a school in Houghton Regis have voiced their worries about how their children are treated, ahead of its multi-academy merger.

Houstone School, part of the Advantage Schools trust, has been criticised by parents of children with SEN as they say there is no classroom for those who require additional support and their needs are not being met.

But while Central Bedfordshire Council says it’s aware of the concerns, trust Advantage Schools says it “doesn’t recognise” the school described in the complaints – and urged parents to get in contact to discuss their issues.

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Chief executive Stuart Lock said Houstone’s sister school pupils with SEN have some of the best GCSE results in the country, and he added that feedback from parents and pupils shows the “vast majority of parents are supportive of the school’s approach, and that pupils feel safe and happy in school”.

The academy opened in September 2022, and does not yet have an Ofsted rating.

Sarah King, who has a child with autism and selective mutism, claimed the school does not accommodate her daughter. She said: “She needs three days to process information. She’s very academically capable of mainstream school if the right support is put in place.”

Some parents believe that teachers send children with SEN to a detention room, known as ‘basecamp’, for “petty reasons” or minor incidents, often brought on by a lack of help or insufficient adjustments made for the pupils.

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Sarah continued: “She can go into school, managed to get to her classroom, and was told that her seat had changed. She’d completely melt down and be mute. Then she would be told she was going to base camp. She’d just freeze.

“Why should they have to go there? There is no other room. Their choice is basecamp or suspension.”

Another upset parent said: “He [son] doesn’t like being trapped in that room all day, where they do no work. He told me that in basecamp what they do is make them write out the school policy. Then write a statement. Parents are supposed to be told when they go to basecamp, but this doesn’t happen.”

Two more parents claimed: "Our son has been punished for petty reasons: saying thank you to a pupil for holding the door open, turning his workbook page too slow, passing a pupil their bag that was caught under his chair.”

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Last month, Advantage Schools revealed that it would create a 10-school trust across Bedfordshire and Luton merging with the Shared Learning Trust, which runs Chalk Hills Academy, Stockwood Park Academy, Linden Academy, The Vale Academy and The Rushmere Park Academy.

Marim Vi, who moved her son to one of the schools which is set to merge with Advantage Schools, said: “They’ve not got a safe person they can approach. It is so difficult to approach the teachers. The way the whole school’s structured, it means a lot of the children are quite scared and embarrassed to approach them just in case the teachers say something.”

While Sarah added: “There’s also a lot of children who have not been diagnosed and [the school] turns a blind eye to the neurodiversity that these children could have.

“There’s no trauma-based approach in the school, it is all based around rules and discipline.”

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Marim explained: “There’s no leeway. Basic understanding and empathy for the children would go a long way.”

Stuart Lock, Chief Executive of Advantage Schools, said: “I’m sorry to hear of anonymous complaints about the school. We always encourage parents to communicate with us directly where they have questions, and have a good record of resolving complaints. In the rare event that it is necessary, we encourage parents to use our complaints policy. I do not recognise the school described in these anonymous complaints.

“Pupils can learn at Houstone School – lessons have no disruption or behaviour problems so that all pupils, including those with SEND, can study and learn uninterrupted. This is why the school is oversubscribed, and has a higher than average proportion of pupils with SEND. Parents and carers are welcome to contact the school for a tour.

“Anonymised parent and pupil surveys consistently show that the vast majority of parents are supportive of the school’s approach, and that pupils feel safe and happy in school.”

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Mr Lock continued: “Houstone School has high expectations for all children, including those with SEND. While Houstone School does not yet have GCSE results, at our sister school pupils with SEND make more progress than their peers and results are some of the best in the country.

"That school has been graded as ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. In my previous role before becoming chief executive of Advantage Schools, I led an outstanding-rated 6th form that was exclusively for pupils with SEND. Pupils who are most vulnerable, including those with SEND, are very important to us.

“Our adjustments are designed to support pupils to meet our high expectations, and to ensure that all pupils participate in extra-curricular activities every week via our elective programme.”

A Central Bedfordshire Council spokesperson said: “We are aware of the concerns that have been raised and while academies are independent of the Council, we can offer SEN support to all schools in Central Bedfordshire.

“Our SEND Advisory Teacher (SENDAT) has discussed with Houstone School’s SENDCo the concerns that have been raised and what reasonable adjustments could be made.”