Parents have said their children with special education needs and disabilities (SEN) are suffering as a result of the policies of a group of York schools.
South Bank Multi-Academy Trust, which runs six schools in the city, has slashed the terms and conditions around 40 of its teaching assistants and support staff – with many leaving to find other jobs as result.
The issue, which came to light at the end of last year, has since snowballed – with a group of parents banding together to highlight wider concerns about the way schools in the trust are being run under its new leadership.
A letter to senior managers and the trust board, signed by more than 200 people, said there were “serious concerns” among parents about the loss of experienced teaching assistants and strict new behaviour policies.
Pupils who were previously thriving at the schools are now said to be struggling, with some now refusing to attend school and others even returning to self harm.
The letter said: “As parents and caregivers, we have lost confidence in the trust to make the right decisions for our schools and the children who attend them.”
Emma Strachan told a meeting of full council that her daughter was devastated after familiar teaching assistants resigned.
She said: “She cried every night as people she liked and had learned to trust left the building and were replaced with agency staff who made no effort to read her passport and frequently made unrealistic demands of an autistic child.
“The remaining TAs have tried their best but are spread too thinly and are put under unreasonable pressure themselves. Without proper support in school, we either have school refusal or emotional upset that is having a negative impact on family life.”
Cathryn Auplish, who has two children with SEN, said: “What you hear in playgrounds around the city are parents worrying about where they will send their child to secondary education that might just might meet their child’s needs.”
Labour Cllr Pete Kilbane has been supporting 15 parents with children who no longer wanted to attend at Millthorpe School.
He said: “Most of them are saying this time last year, things were good and their children were attending school and were happy.
“What changed was that South Bank MAT unilaterally altered the terms and conditions of the teaching assistants and support staff and that led to droves of those staff leaving both primary and secondary schools in our area.
“This hostile environment created for the teaching assistants also seems to have spread into some of the cultures of the schools, with unnecessarily harsh discipline.”
Mark Hassack took on the role of trust chief executive in March of last year.
A spokesperson for the trust said there had been no change to the overall number of SEN posts and that they were in the process of recruiting “skilled, experienced members of staff” to fill vacancies.
Ian Wiggins, chair of trustees at the trust, said: “We know from feedback that the vast majority of parents, pupils and colleagues are really happy with the education and care our schools provide. However, we also know that not every decision schools make will be popular with the whole community.
“Our schools’ individuality is really important to us, and operational decision-making, rightly, rests with our schools and headteachers.
“To continue to provide all that we can for the children in our schools and for our communities, we have also had to make some difficult trust wide decisions on personnel matters…all these decisions have been discussed thoroughly by trustees and have had the full backing of the board.”
Mr Wiggins said feedback from parents was important and encouraged those concerned to ask questions, though the openness of the trust on this issue has been heavily disputed by parents.
Mr Wiggins added: “I know from the time I have spent in our schools that anyone visiting will see the reality of our schools which are warm, welcoming and safe places in which to teach and learn and a very long way from the draconian institutes which are being portrayed on social media.”