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Fresh doubt over future of Hornchurch charity’s education service - despite sixth straight Outstanding Ofsted rating

PUBLISHED: 12:13 21 May 2020 | UPDATED: 12:13 21 May 2020

Mark Halls, chief executive of children's charity First Step.  Picture: Paul Bennett

Mark Halls, chief executive of children's charity First Step. Picture: Paul Bennett

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A Hornchurch charity’s education provision for children with special needs has received Ofsted’s top rating for a sixth successive time - but its boss says the service’s future is at risk.

First Step, in Tangmere Crescent, was rated Outstanding once again by the education regulator after an inspection in March.

The charity’s educational arm offers childcare for around 30 youngsters aged two to four with special educational needs or disabilities.

The report was published last week and inspectors wrote: “Staff are exceptional. They show genuine care and compassion, and are thoroughly invested in each child.

“Children form very strong attachments with key persons. They smile and laugh with the adults who care for them. A real sense of joy runs through every aspect of the provision.”

They added that the service “excels” in helping the children to reach their full potential.

“High expectations of each child and a meticulously devised curriculum help to ensure planned next steps are purposeful and challenge children effectively.”

First Step has been graded as Outstanding since 2006 but chief executive Mark Halls said it is “ironic” that the report’s publication comes at a time when the charity is once again considering the future of its educational provision.

He said the charity has been paying towards the service from its reserves since Havering Council stopped annual funding support of £120,000 in March 2017.

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But Mr Halls warned that this “cannot be sustained” and revealed First Step has requested talks with council leader Damian White and senior council officers to discuss the service’s future.

The charity is also planning to invite all Havering councillors to attend a virtual meeting.

Mr Halls said: “We are delighted that Ofsted has, for the sixth consecutive inspection, recognised that educational services at First Step are outstanding. The staff, management team, trustees past and present, along with our many supporters have every reason to be very proud of this achievement.

“It would be a tragedy if an early years’ provision identified by Ofsted as Outstanding for the sixth time is lost to the community of Havering.”

The charity boss admitted the coronavirus pandemic has been a “significant factor” in putting the service’s future at risk, due to a reduction in fundraising income.

The Recorder reported last year that First Step was at risk of closure due to a lack of funds, but that the charity was planning on launching a social enterprise to generate funding.

Mr Halls wanted to reassure people that the charity’s family support will continue to be maintained, adding: “In the future, when our social enterprise has been established and is providing funding for First Step, we will have the opportunity to reconsider the services we deliver.”

The charity was set up by Gill Hare and Margaret Williams in October 1988 providing support to six families in the Methodist Church Hall in Upminster. It moved to Dunningford School, Hornchurch, in 1992 and as the charity grew it finally moved to its current site in 2006 after a £1.1m fundraising campaign for the new building.

Cllr White said the council appreciates businesses, community organisations and charities like First Step are facing an “unprecedented challenge” to stay open. He added: “During the Covid-19 crisis, both the council and government have moved to provide additional support to these organisations who do so much to help the most vulnerable in our community. We recognise the valuable contribution that First Step makes to the borough and would of course be happy to meet virtually to try and help where we can.

“However, the council’s funds are not limitless. Therefore, the support we give must be fair and consistent with the help we offer any other of our large number of fantastic charities and community organisations.”

Any businesses or individuals who want to support First Step can contact Mr Halls on 07108 556355 or mark.halls@firststep.org.uk, while donations can also be made on www.firststep.org.uk


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