Parents feel 'left in limbo' over school place for son who is deaf, autistic and has learning difficulties

Joseph has a number of health issues after being born at just 24 weeks.
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A family said they feel "left in limbo" after their son, who has serious health and learning challenges, has still not been allocated a place at what they feel is a suitable secondary school.

Joseph Gibson, 11, was born at 24 weeks and three days and weighed just 1lb 8oz .

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Brave Joseph faced seven operations as he battled for life but has been left with a number of health conditions due damage to his white matter - the deeper tissues of his brain.

Dad Paul Gibson, 40, said: "Joseph has a high pain threshold and so isn't always aware when doing something which is hurting him.

"He is also deaf and at risk of having seizures. Joseph has also been diagnosed as being autistic as well as having learning difficulties which are assessed as currently leaving him three or four years behind where a child of his age would be expected to to be.

"He has an education health care plan (EHCP) which is currently being updated to reflect his learning difficulties."

Gemma and Paul Gibson with their son Joseph.Gemma and Paul Gibson with their son Joseph.
Gemma and Paul Gibson with their son Joseph.
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Fully aware of the challenges Joseph faces, Paul and his wife Gemma have spent the last two years trying to secure a place at a suitable school for when he moves on to the next stage of his education in September.

Paul said: "The situation we have is that Joseph is not judged as 'disabled enough' to go to a special school but we know he will not cope with the current provision in place in mainstream secondary schools.

"He has been left in limbo. We have been to visit a number of schools but none of them can cater for all of Joseph's needs.

"Some may be able to support his autism but not him being deaf, while other schools may have support for being deaf but not provision for his autism and learning difficulties."

Paul Gibson.Paul Gibson.
Paul Gibson.
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Currently a Year 6 pupil at Thorney Close Primary School, Joseph is one of three deaf children to benefit from a specialist deaf teacher as well as a designated teaching assistant.

Based on geographical location, Joseph would ordinarily move on to Sandhill View Academy, where his brother Alfie is currently a pupil in Year 10.

Joseph Gibson faces a number of health challenges.Joseph Gibson faces a number of health challenges.
Joseph Gibson faces a number of health challenges.

Paul said: "His support at Thorney Close has generally been good and Joseph is making progress. They understand his needs, but we are really concerned that without the right provision he is going get left behind at secondary school and struggle to cope.

"We did get a call from the Local Authority suggesting Sandhill, but we've spoken with teachers and don't feel the school can't cater for all his needs.

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"We've also been to visit Washington Academy which has a learning support unit.

"It's probably the place which best fits for Joseph but it still doesn't meet all his needs and we still have not found out if he will be accepted.

"It's also quite a journey each day from Thorney Close.

"There are schools in Durham and Newcastle which can cater for all Joseph's needs but we are outside their catchment area and Joseph shouldn't have to travel outside of the Local Authority to have his needs met.

"There will no doubt be other parents and children in this situation and there should be schools in Sunderland with a structure in place that can meet all Joseph's and other children's needs."

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The uncertainty and worry over Joseph's future pathway is starting to take its toll on Paul and Gemma.

Gemma Gibson.Gemma Gibson.
Gemma Gibson.

Joseph's mother, Gemma, 39, said: "It's very stressful not knowing where Joseph is going to go. We don't know where we stand and as each week passes by Joseph is closer to leaving primary school.

"As a parent you need to feel comfortable about the school you are sending your children to but there doesn't seem to be anything in place which is suitable."

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Paul added: "We are in limbo as Joseph is deemed not 'disabled enough' to go to a special school but we know he simply won't cope in a mainstream school.

"We know that Joseph is going to face challenges for the rest of his life, but he's entering the last five years of his education and there are certain skills he needs to know, but without the right resources in place he will get left behind."

The family have also been critical of the communication they've experienced with the Local Authority as they've sought to find a suitable school place.

Paul said: "We've been trying to sort a place for two years - it's not something we've left until the last minute.

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"We were told someone from the places panel would be in touch, but that was three months ago.

"We've tried chasing up with emails and phone calls, but in the end we've resorted to having to communicate with the Local Authority through Joseph's SENCO.

"We don't want to be in a position where Joseph is allocated an unsuitable place and it's too late to appeal it before he starts.

"It's ridiculous."

Gemma added: "It's like Joseph's education is in the hands of the Council. We are waiting on their decision, but this should have been sorted months ago."

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Children's services in Sunderland are overseen on behalf of the City Council by Together for Children.

Strategic lead for Special Educational Needs and disabilities, Pamela Robertson highlighted that the statutory deadline for places is not until next week, and while not referring to Joseph's specific case, stressed that provision in place at Sandhill View Academy for children with hearing impairments.

She said: "We are currently in the process of finalising school places for Year 6 children due to transition to secondary school in September 2024 in line with the statutory deadline of February 15. 

"Together for Children  operate a Hearing Impairment  Additionally Resourced Provision at Sandhill School, which is fully staffed by specialist teaching and support staff from the Children’s Sensory  Impairment Team, which includes a Qualified Teacher of the Deaf and specialist support staff.

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"This team provides any support required by the children which is related to their hearing impairment and specified within the  child’s EHCP.

"Deaf / hearing Impaired Children who access other mainstream schools across the City also have access to this specialist team on a peripatetic basis (teachers/staff travelling from school to school).

"Parents of children with EHCPs who are transitioning to secondary school in September should speak to their allocated SEND Caseworker if they have questions or concerns. "