Hetton-le-Hole Nursery School was closed by Sunderland City Council in 2021 due to concerns about a rising financial deficit which had grown over a number of years.
The nursery school, which was rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted for its childcare provision, had served the community since 1945 and parents, teachers and a number of councillors campaigned against its closure.
Following legal consultations and after alternatives to closure fell through, council chiefs backed proposals to ‘discontinue’ the provision.
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Under new proposals discussed by the city council’s ruling cabinet this week, the building could be revived as a specialist education provision for the whole of the Coalfields area.
The move is part of a bid by the city council to “enlarge and increase the capacity” of Sunderland’s Pupil Referral Unit (PRU).
The PRU service provides education for children who need a higher level of support than mainstream education sites can provide.
Since 2019, the service has offered alternative provision across two sites, with a base at the former Springwell Dene School for pupils aged between 5-14 and the Pallion Centre which accommodates pupils aged between 15-16.
In 2020, two pilot schemes were also developed to establish ‘assessment centres’ within two local schools, offering an additional 12 places at each site.
According to a report presented to cabinet this week, demand for places at the PRU continues to “exceed capacity”.
Under proposals presented to cabinet, which are subject to further decision-making, permanent satellite sites would be established for the Pupil Referral Unit in the Hetton, Washington and South Sunderland areas.
This would expand the existing provision from the current two PRU sites to five sites, with permanent additional sites at Hudson Road Primary School, Oxclose Community Academy and the former Hetton-le-Hole Nursery School.
If proposals are brought forward Sunderland’s PRU capacity would increase from 172 pupils to 220 pupils, with staffing shared across the five sites.
A social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) provision for primary aged children is also planned at the Coalfields satellite site, with the former Hetton-le-Hole Nursery School building identified as the location.
This proposal aims to ensure provision is located and distributed across the city, as the current SEMH provision is all based in the city centre.
At a meeting at City Hall on Thursday, June 9, the city council’s cabinet backed proposals to seek and award contracts to refurbish the former nursery school building and external areas to pave the way for its proposed new use.
According to a report to cabinet, the development would allow appropriate pupils in the Coalfields to access a “more geographically appropriate provision”.
Councillor Louise Farthing, cabinet member for children, learning and skills, said the proposals “put children first” and would help those in the Coalfields who currently have to travel into central Sunderland for appropriate provision.
Members of the cabinet praised the proposals for the former Hetton-le-Hole Nursery School site, including deputy council leader and Hetton ward councillor, Claire Rowntree, who described it as a “welcome provision”.
Councillor Iain Scott, deputy cabinet member for Dynamic City and Hetton ward councillor, added: “There’s some serious benefits to the Coalfield area in general and in Hetton-le-Hole itself.”
According to a cabinet report, the Coalfields site would provide “much needed additional capacity” in the city while resulting in “fewer out of area or independent school placements” and a reduced requirement for “excessive daily transport”.
Assessment centre models within the satellite sites, the cabinet report adds, would also “increase the potential for a pupil’s successful re-integration back to their substantive mainstream setting or, alternatively, lead to a more appropriate special school or provision placement.”
Proposals to increase the capacity of Sunderland’s Pupil Referral Unit and to establish additional permanent satellite sites must go through a number of informal and legal processes including consultation.
The final decision will rest with the School Organisation Committee of Cabinet at a future date.
Subject to approval, the first admission to the Coalfields satellite site or proposed SEMH provision is expected to be September 2023.