‘Betrayed’ Belsize students protest loss of special needs staff at Wac Arts College

Students from Wac Arts College protesting outside the school

Students protesting outside the school - Credit: Polly Hancock

“Betrayed” Belsize Park students say their school’s “family” is under threat after four special educational needs (SEN) staff were let go.

Wac Arts College, an alternative school outside mainstream education, many of whose students have learning difficulties, will not renew the contract of four full-time SEN mentors and two part-time PSHE teachers beyond December 31.

On Monday, more than 20 students at the creative arts college in Haverstock Hill went on strike and skipped class to protest the decision which they say will harm the most vulnerable pupils who have behavioural, social, mental or physical problems – and who rely on SEN mentors for one-to-one support.

In a letter sent to parents and carers shared with the Ham&High, the college’s interim principal Nick White said the decision was a “painful” but “absolutely necessary” one to manage its “financial difficulties” and “substantial historic debt”.

Sofia, 17, whose seizure disorder saw her moved to Wac Arts from a mainstream school, said: “We love this college – that’s what this is all about.

Tilly, 17

Tilly, 17 - Credit: Polly Hancock

“We need to make sure it’s the same college we love and not something different – and the support staff have always been the ones who have carried that.

“I know what it feels like not to be supported and it’s not right.”

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The loss of four SEN mentors in December follows a further three agency support staff being let go at the end of lockdown, this newspaper understands. Students say the “rug has been pulled” from beneath them.

Mason, 18, who studies performing arts, said: “For the more vulnerable kids, I have no idea how they’re going to adjust to this.

“In the very best case scenario they have to learn to adapt to someone very, very quickly. In the worst, they have no support.”

Students skipped class in opposition

Students skipped class in opposition - Credit: Polly Hancock

In May, following the departure of previous head James Fornara, Mr White was appointed as interim principal. The free school recently became part of the academy trust T4.

Mason said the college’s SEN support was the best he’d seen inside or outside mainstream education, but that the new principal "didn’t understand how sacred this culture is to Wac”.

“Every single person who comes into the college has come on leaps and bounds in terms of confidence, skills and how they feel around people,” Mason said.

“I feel like if we take that environment away there is nothing for us and the school becomes a shell of itself. We just don’t want to lose that."

Paris, 17

Paris, 17 - Credit: Polly Hancock

Students have set up a fundraiser aiming to raise £100,000 to “save our staff” and they have written a letter to the college’s senior management team and T4 outlining their position.

They called on the school to not rely on agency staff or short-term contracts so that they “see the job for more than a pay check and see us for more than our report cards or diagnosis”.

They asked for a "solution" that would see as many staff as possible retained and an “open and honest” dialogue with students on the college’s financial situation, detailing how the school would be run moving forward.

17-year-old Tilly, who has ADHD, said her SEN mentor – whose job is under threat – helped her to retain focus in class.

“She is vital because she is the only support I get. She’s more like a mother figure to me,” Tilly said.

Jaida, 19

Jaida, 19 - Credit: Polly Hancock

Paris, 17, told this newspaper: “When I would be upset or down I could talk to that member of staff and I would calm down, I would be able to go back to lesson.

“Without that support system I don’t feel I’d be able to do half the things that I could when I had that support.”

Former Wac Arts College student Jolie, 17, said that “bonds were being broken”.

“Why we have so much support here is because all the students have been in places before where there hasn’t been enough support," she said. 

“So coming here has helped to give them anything they need – and that is what the college are taking away.”

Student and mentor Elizabeth, 17, said: “I have worked with kids who have special needs for five years.

“The point is they need that support. Without it they really struggle.”

Students with their "save our staff" fundraiser

Students with their "save our staff" fundraiser - Credit: Polly Hancock

Wac Arts College referred the Ham&High to the letter sent out on Monday, in which interim principal Nick White said the school’s costs exceeded income by a “significant amount”.

He said that the pandemic had not made the college’s financial difficulties “any easier” and that the books would have to be balanced by cutting the school’s payroll – its largest outlay.

Mr White said: “As the end of September approached, it became clear that we will have to return to the kind of staffing levels that the college had in 2018 which supported a comparable number of students, in order to produce a balanced budget.

“On Friday of last week, I had the uncomfortable task of telling a small number of staff on fixed-term contracts that their contracts would not be extended beyond the current end date of 31st December 2020.

“This was a painful experience for me and for them, but absolutely necessary if the college is to overcome its current financial difficulties.”

Wac Arts College is rated “good” by Ofsted and has capacity for 105 students. Around 43% of its pupils are eligible for free school meals.

Wac student Romie 

Wac student Romie - Credit: Polly Hancock