The special educational needs system was slammed by MPs last week as “not fit for purpose” and in need of radical overhaul.
A report from the Commons education and skills committee found serious flaws regarding consistency of provision, the statementing process and teacher training.
Concerns about SEN provision are not new with a 2004 Ofsted report finding “considerable inequality of provision” both in terms of quality and access to services. The committee said it was “surprised and highly concerned” that these issues had still not been addressed and recommend a range of measures to bring about improvements.
The existing SEN framework was put in place following research carried out by Baroness Warnock in 1978. The MPs say that the education system has moved on considerably since then and a new over arching strategy for SEN needs to be introduced.
Virginia Beardshaw, chief executive at children’s communication charity I CAN, welcomes the plans for a new strategy as she says what children currently get depends on where they live.
But Brian Lamb, chair of the Special Educational Needs Consortium, does not feel that a new framework for SEN is needed and that effort should instead be concentrated on improvements in service delivery. He says that this should include more emphasis on training teachers to deliver sen programmes and providing a differential curriculum.
“I don’t think another great review is helpful (the government published Removing Barriers to Achievement – a strategy for sen two years ago). What we want to ensure is that they [the government] get schools to ensure less children need statements,” he says.
The report goes on to call for a statutory requirement for local authorities to provide a broad range of support for young people with sen – including the provision of special schools.
Lamb says that this would be helpful but he is sceptical as to whether the government would ever go down this route. He says that more measures to ensure that central government funding for sen is not used on other things by schools are key to improving provision.
“There’s a lack of control, with the massive devolution of budgets to schools local education authorities have got very few levers to try to make sure the sen money is spent in the right place,” he says.
Beardshaw agrees that funding mechanisms need to change. She says that while government policy states that there needs to be outreach work, school clusters and joint placements (where children’s schooling is split between special and mainstream schools), funding does not follow children causing problems if they receive services in two different local education authority areas.
The statementing process is another area identified as requiring an overhaul by the committee. This currently involves councils both carrying out the assessments of what children require and providing the services, a situation the MPs see as unacceptable arguing that it represents a conflict of interest.
Beardshaw says that many families her orgnaisation work with have faced a high degree of reluctance from councils to provide statements and have been forced to commission professionals privately to prove that their child requires one. “We have got families taking up big loans, we have got families taking out second mortgages and mothers being forced back to work to pay for a range of specialist assessments,” she says.
She agrees that even when children have statements many do not get the services they require due to the conflict of interest and says assessments should be carried out by an independent body to tackle this.
The committee concludes that the government is presenting a confusing message to councils as to whether pupils with SEN should be taught in special or mainstream schools. The MPs found that while schools minister Lord Adonis told them there was no government policy to reduce the number of special schools when giving evidence this was contradicted by the SEN strategy published in 2004 (Removing Barriers to Achievement) which stated this aim.
Claire Dorer, chief executive of The National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools, which represents special schools in the voluntary sector, says that such a clarification would be helpful with many special schools in the voluntary sector having closed and many being on the brink of closure due to councils not placing children with them.
“We have a government strategy saying there is a role for us but we find that the funding for us gets ever tighter,” she says.
Speaking in response to the report education secretary Alan Johnson agrees that SEN services need improving but with many of the committee’s concerns arising in previous investigations scepticism amongst campaigners remains.
Special Educational Needs Third Report of Session 2005-6 from: www.parliament.uk