Green light for Middlesbrough’s trail-blazing special academy

Middlesbrough’s first free school for those with special educational needs has been given the green light – with its doors set to open in the summer of 2022.

Described as a “trail-blazing beacon for local education”, Discovery Special School was granted planning permission at a Middlesbrough Council meeting on Friday.

Once built, it will provide a specialist educational provision for up to 84 children aged 4-11 with complex and significant learning, communication, physical and medical needs.

Part of Tees Valley Education Multi Academy Trust, Discovery will help to meet an increasing demand for special needs education places and facilities within the Middlesbrough and Redcar & Cleveland local authority areas.

Middlesbrough Council had previously agreed the sale of land at Sandy Flatts Lane, Acklam, to the Department of Education for the construction of Discovery Special Academy, one of the Government’s flagship free schools.

The planning application was granted exactly five years after Tees Valley Education first began work with the Department for Education. It is expected that construction work will get underway in the Spring.

Katrina Morley, Tees Valley Education’s CEO, said: “This is a phenomenal step forward for this vital project, as it means that the Department for Education can start to work with their contractor.

“This specially constructed, state-of-the-art facility will be a brilliant school for families across Middlesbrough and Redcar & Cleveland.

“There has been an urgent need for bespoke, stand-alone specialist provision for local children with complex learning needs and the Sandy Flatts site is the perfect location for the school.”

Sixty children currently attend high-quality temporary facilities on the site of Brambles Primary Academy on Kedward Avenue in Middlesbrough. That figure will rise to 72 during the next academic year before reaching the new build’s 84-strong capacity next summer.

Praising the work of Discovery’s head teacher Jennifer Duncan and Emma Lowe, the trust’s director of special educational needs and inclusion, Mrs Morley said: “We are ecstatic that all of the hard work by so many is now coming to fruition.

“I can’t put into words how it will feel when we see our dream and commitment put into bricks and mortar. It will be a privilege and honour. How many people pay it forward with such a legacy – a vital service for future generations?

“To know we are doing that for some of the most vulnerable children across Middlesbrough and Redcar is very special.

“But it will also create jobs and bring millions of pounds-worth of investment into the area. This is really is a piece of local history.”

Mrs Morley praised the “tenacity and hard work” of those involved in the project including the DfE and Middlesbrough Local Education Authority.

The academy will feature a therapy suite including sensory integration therapy, a physiotherapy room, soft play, light and sound therapy and rebound therapy.

Outdoor learning will also be a big feature to encourage exploration and supported risk-taking.

The school will be built on part of the land covered by the former Nature’s World attraction and voluntary group The Friends of Nature’s World will work with the academy to develop sensory gardens at the school and within the remaining Nature’s World area.

The school has established a good relationship with the voluntary group, which is represented on the academy committee, while prior to Covid Discovery pupils took part in planting and craft activities on the former Nature’s World site.

Mayor Andy Preston, who was chair of Tees Valley Education Trust’s board when the free school was first applied for, has previously said: “As one of the government’s first free special schools, Discovery is blazing a trail not only for Middlesbrough and Teesside but the whole country.

“For too long, we’ve had a sticking plaster approach, trying to make do as best we could, but Discovery represents a beautiful and ground-breaking solution to help solve a really pressing need for children with a range of complex needs.

“Discovery have some outstanding people who have created a truly uplifting, inspiring environment for the children.”

Discovery’s head teacher Jennifer Duncan said: “After all the hard work, dedication and commitment from the whole team at Discovery and Tees Valley Education, it is incredibly exciting to have finally got to this stage.

“While we have made our current temporary accommodation home for the last two years, the vision we have all contributed to of our very own purpose-built home is now about to become a reality.

“After a challenging year for the whole community, to start 2021 with this amazing news is simply fabulous. This is a great moment for the children, their families and all those who have been involved in the Discovery journey so far.”

Emma Lowe, the trust’s director of special educational needs and inclusion, added: “This is one of the most significant developments in the project to date. It is incredibly humbling to be part of a team who have worked tirelessly to bring a single vision to reality.

“But, most importantly, this is about creating a much-needed specialist educational and therapeutic provision for the children and families in the Tees Valley region, and I am immensely proud of what we have and will continue to achieve.”