Hammersmith & FulhamNews

Parents worry as school for autistic youngsters plans switch to new overlords

By Ben Lynch, Local Democracy Reporter

Parents have sounded the alarm over the planned transfer of a school for autistic children 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 Askham Road, 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 other establishments 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.

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, apart from 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 one per cent annual increase since 2013.”

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.

The Queensmill School (Picture: LDRS)

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

Lisha Rooney, 49, who is also the chair of governors at the school, said it was a ‘big deal’ getting her son in, adding: “I think they’ve been a lifeline. 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.”

Aishatu Dapchi, 44, who also has a son attending Queensmill, said: “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.”

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.

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 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?,” she said.

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’, saying the local authority ‘demonstrably owe us money for services we have provided’.

“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.

A spokesman 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.

“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.”

A spokesman for Ormiston said it was a trust with a ‘strong belief’ in the importance of inclusion and high-quality education for chldren with special needs and disabilities and currently operates 42 schools nationally.

They said: “We hope that they [parents, staff and stakeholders] will be as excited as we are that this move will enable Queensmill schools to continue providing valuable specialist provision.”

The Queensmill Trust said it did not wish to comment.

Pictured top: Ageno Ochola (left) and Lisha Rooney both have children attending Queensmill School (Picture: LDRS)

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