Children with special educational needs and disabilities, especially those with complex and multiple needs, do not get sufficient support, according to a report published this week.
The government-commissioned audit of provision for special educational needs in England included services for children with severe sensory impairments, severe autistic spectrum disorders, severe behavioural, social and emotional difficulties and profound and multiple learning difficulties.
The audit arose from concern about “availability and consistency of support” including use of out of authority placements.
Despite analysing services for such a diverse group of children, the audit found many common issues, particularly for children with more complex needs.
The audit revealed that children can face barriers accessing support including mental health services, Connexions, youth services and social and leisure opportunities.
It also found that more support for children moving towards adulthood is vital and inclusive provision in all mainstream secondary schools needs improvement.
Taking its cue from the new integrated agenda for children’s services, the audit calls for “joined-up responses” from agencies to “develop more coherent packages of support”.
But it finds evidence of a lack of co-ordination between and within agencies.
Examples include local authorities finding it more difficult to provide effectively when children’s complex needs “cut across a range of service/provision boundaries”.
Family support and respite care is usually provided through children and disabilities teams while support for behavioural, emotional and social difficulties tends to be through more generic social work support.
So do different departments within the same council talk to each other? In some cases, apparently not.
Some of the social services departments who filled in questionnaires did not complete the section on behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. Questionnaires tended to be passed to managers of children’s disability teams and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties were dealt with elsewhere.
The audit cites evidence of child and adolescent mental health services being criticised for “not being sufficiently accessible to young people with severe sensory impairments”.
This is partly due to “inflexible service boundaries (these children are not part of our normal client group – someone else must be able to deal with them)”.
There are also limited opportunities for support for their mental health needs. Young people with sensory impairments can feel isolated, which can lead to mental health issues, says the report. Counselling is not readily available, it adds.
The audit identified gaps in provision for family support and respite care. “Gaps in family support and short break/respite provision come out very strongly from this audit. These are a major factor in parents/carers opting for placements away from home,” it says.
Education and health professionals who took part in the research placed greater emphasis on short breaks than social services staff.
The audit calls on the government to “extend the range of short break options”.
Options include reviewing direct payments to see if the scheme has helped develop more short break options and developing a pool of foster parents.
The research found children with sensory impairments and their families had problems accessing short breaks as some social services disability teams gave priority to children with learning difficulties.
The research also showed that young people with autistic spectrum disorders and their parents tended to reject short breaks that typically supported children with learning difficulties. Staff in residential units and shared carers were inexperienced in supporting children with autism. Children with autism also find being away from home and their routines difficult.
Also published this week is a report from charity Shared Care Network calling for more short break carers for disabled children. Shared Care found that over 90 per cent of short break schemes have waiting lists, with families commonly waiting up to a year for services.
Co-author of the Shared Care Network report Jeanne Carlin agrees that children with mental health problems and children with autism are neglected by short break provision.
She says more research is needed to establish that improved family support will lead to less use of out of authority placements.
One new development for short breaks is the use of contract carers, says Carlin. They tend to do shared care as a full-time job and this means providers invest more in them, offering training, house adaptations, perhaps a car. This can lead to shared carers developing specialisms, such as working with children with autism and children with complex needs.
This move towards professionalism is very welcome, says Carlin.
The national audit cites examples of good practice and calls for “clearer national guidelines” to highlight what works well.
Projects mentioned include Harrow Council in London working with the RNIB for pupils with severe learning difficulties and visual impairment. One West Midlands project and another in Yorkshire are establishing links between deaf children and child and adolescent mental health services.
Local special schools are being developed to provide for children with more complex needs and this has led to reduced out of authority placements in Southend, Sheffield, Coventry and Cornwall.
Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset councils have worked together on a multi-agency review of services for disabled children. Social care, education and health professionals were all involved, as well as young people, parents and the voluntary sector.
The audit included questionnaires, 13 focus groups, and interviews with a wide range of stakeholders including professionals from social services, education and health, plus a literature review. Information was gathered during 2005.
Almost 70 per cent (103 departments) of social services asked returned questionnaires. (This compared to 88 per cent of education departments returning data).
The audit is specifically concerned with “low incidence” special educational needs. It says the term “low incidence” is used within education but not in social care. The nearest equivalent in health is “low volume, high cost”. Low incidence describes needs that occur less frequently and has been used to describe children with sensory impairments and/or physical disabilities.
Autistic spectrum disorders have more recently been included in the definition. Also included in the audit were children with profound and multiple learning difficulties and children with severe behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.
The evidence gathered on the extent of failure to meet the needs of children with special needs in the two reports makes depressing reading.
But a glimmer of hope for the future also arrived this week. In a barely-noticed section of Gordon Brown’s Budget the chancellor launched a government
review of support for families with disabled children. It will look at “how services can provide greater support to families with disabled children to improve their life chances”.
National audit of support, services and provision for children with low incidence needs
Report written by the Special Needs Consultancy and commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills.
Shared Care Network report Still waiting?