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First Step will not reopen education service ahead of school year start, boss says

PUBLISHED: 17:07 02 September 2020 | UPDATED: 13:30 04 September 2020

Mark Halls, chief executive of First Step. Picture: Paul Bennett

Mark Halls, chief executive of First Step. Picture: Paul Bennett

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A Hornchurch charity’s acclaimed education service will not be reopening ahead of the start of the school year, the charity’s boss has confirmed.

The Recorder reported in May that the future of First Step’s educational arm was under threat after its chief executive Mark Halls said it could not sustain funding the service from its reserves.

It offers childcare for around 30 youngsters aged two to four with special educational needs or disabilities.

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

He added that a “tail-off” in fundraising caused by the Covid-19 pandemic had left it in a “really difficult position”.

The charity met with council bosses, including council leader Damian White and chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert, in June to discuss its situation.

Mr Halls said the charity followed up with a detailed report which it sent to the council in July but he told the Recorder it has been met with “silence”.

Mr Halls added: “It is incredibly frustrating.

“We have heard absolutely nothing from them which is appalling. It is disgraceful.”

The Tangmere Crescent charity will not be opening its education service, he confirmed, with the term set to begin on September 4.

It is going through a redundancy process with seven staff whose jobs are at risk.

But Mr Halls said the decision could be reversed if a total of £200,000 funding for the next two years is found.

Mr Halls said: “The ball is in the court of the local authority unless there is someone who could fund it from another source.

“The longer it goes on, the more difficult it becomes.

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“On a personal level, it has been tremendously difficult. This service is not a luxury for these families.

“It gives parents an hour or two a day when they can have time out.

“It is a really tough decision we need to make. If we do not make it, it is likely First Step would not last beyond October or November.”

Mr Halls confirmed the charity’s “core” service will continue to be its family support service.

First Step’s educational provision was rated as Outstanding by education regulator Ofsted for a sixth successive time earlier this year.

Cllr White said: “The council met with the chief executive and trustees of First Step in the summer. We have now received, reviewed and responded to their proposal.

“Unfortunately, due to the financial pressures created by the Covid-19 pandemic, we are unable to provide the funding required at this time.”

He explained that the council and the government had provided support to organisations that help the borough’s most vulnerable people, but said any assistance it gives must be fair to that which it offers to other charities and community groups.

He added: “The council appreciates that the Covid-19 crisis has created an immensely difficult situation for everyone and acknowledge that many businesses, charities and community organisations are facing an unprecedented challenge to remain open.

“We appreciate that First Step offers a very good service, as evidenced by previous Ofsted reports, and has the confidence of parents and professionals. We also recognise the valuable contribution that First Step makes to the borough.

“However, the council’s funds are not limitless.

“Should First Step close its education service, the council will work with the families affected to find alternative nursery providers for their children.”

In response, Mr Halls said he is unhappy that the council has “no tangible, meaningful plans as to how they will look after these precious young children with special needs and disabilities just days before they were due to start a new term”.

He added: “First Step did not approach the council for funding, only for there to be clarity as to how these children would be looked after when the educational services were discontinued.”

Among those trying to support the charity are a group of mothers, known as the First Step Breakfast Mums, who made a video charting their children’s journey with the charity.

To view the video, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGX1lt_oC_Y or to donate, visit firststep.org.uk.


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