Optimism over autism education centre in West Sussex

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A Chichester parent has said she is ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the prospect of a specialist centre being set up to provide further education to young people with autism.

Evelyn Ashford, founder of the parent group Educational Equality, has been campaigning for the past two years for a dedicated post-16 centre to be set up to help provide meaningful opportunities for young people who have high-functioning autism, sensory and communication difficulties.

The idea is now being looked at by West Sussex County Council, and this month meetings took place between its learning service and representatives of the Educational Equality group, which represents more than 2,000 parents of children and young people with autism.

The centre would be provided on the site of St Anthony’s School and the hope is the centre would open in September 2011 before moving into purpose-built accommodation the following year.

The Educational Equality group has identified the need for 32 places and St Anthony’s School would be able to provide 24, with a further eight places needing to be found.

Mrs Ashford, from Parklands, said a dedicated centre would help save money, as out of county placements were incredibly expensive.

“At the service-wide meeting held at Chichester College by the local authority at the end of November we were told the county spends more than £1.7m per year on 52 out-of-county placements, the majority of these places are for students with autism.

“At an average cost of £51,000 per year per child, the new centre could relate to well over £1m savings of public funds per year.”

The county council is now looking at funding for the new centre. In a statement it said: “The need for a centre in the western area of the county has been identified for more able children on the autistic spectrum to support and enable them to transfer more successfully into further educational opportunities.”

Councillor Peter Griffiths, county cabinet member for education and schools, met with parents earlier this month.

He said: “This is potentially a very positive development because we recognise there is a need to assist young people with autistic difficulties for whom moving into further education can be very difficult.

“We are looking at the western area of the county at this stage, but a centre of this type is something we would like to see eventually in other areas.

“However, I have stressed to parents that we are facing difficult economic times and much will depend on finance, and I know they appreciate that. I hope to be able to give more details in the very near future after further discussions and costings have been completed.”

Mrs Ashford said: “I am delighted that the needs of these students have been recognised and we look forward to working with the local authority to ensure that this provision will support children with autistic spectrum disorders to reach their full potential within our community.

“It is clearly in the interests of all to invest in appropriate education in our own area to save the great expense of out of county placements and the emotional distress which families had previously encountered.”

For more information about Educational Equality see www.educationalequality.co.uk