A LOCAL education authority is appealing to the government to forego a £400,000 payout for changing the use of a former children’s centre to a school for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) pupils.

Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet looks set to approve Education Village Academy Trust taking over the site of the Haughton Children’s Centre, which closed in 2017 as the authority created one main hub for the service.

With the borough seeing numbers of SEND pupils rising from 385 in January 2013 to 779 last month – a 102 per cent increase – it has become increasingly important to retain more pupils in schools in the borough rather than at higher cost out of area specialist placements.

The increase in the number of children requiring SEND support has not been mirrored by increases within the funding available. At the end of 2018/19, Darlington had a deficit on its high needs pupils of £3.2m.

The council said it wants to use the children’s centre site to increase capacity at Beaumont Hill Academy, ensuring more pupils will be able to access specialist provision locally.

However, a clause in the council’s £556,000 grant from the Department for Education to establish the children’s centre stated if the council ceased to use the asset for the original purpose of the grant before 2035 it would have to hand back £400,000 of the funding.

Ahead of the proposed changes council officers approached the government with details of the proposed use of the site for SEND placements at Beaumont Hill Academy, a specialised school serving pupils aged two to 19.

Department for Education officials advised the condition for the children’s centre grant stipulated the funding must be used for predominately children aged up to five years old.

A report to cabinet stated while the authority was having discussions with the Department for Education “to try and mitigate this risk as far as possible”, it was also recommended that £400,000 is earmarked from the council’s reserves in case the government decides to take the funding back.

The authority’s leader Councillor Heather Scott said she was optimistic the government would overlook the change of use as the premises would still be dedicated to children. She said: “Haughton Children’s Centre has been standing empty for two years and is a fantastic resource for the borough. We believe this would be a good way to bring it back into use while also cutting the cost of sending the pupils to places outside of Darlington.”