WHAT ARE THE RPS?
The SEN regional partnerships began life in 1999 as an attempt by the Government to make standards of SEN provision more consistent across the country. The idea was that the partnerships should help local authorities, together with health services, voluntary sector providers, carers and families, to pool ideas and experience across the region, to improve the quality of SEN provision and promote inclusive practice.
Membership of a regional partnership is voluntary. Initially, there were five partnerships (then known as regional projects); now the number has grown to 11, to cover the whole of England, and local authorities are variably involved according to their size and capacity. With government funding assured until April 2006, each regional partnership employs one or two facilitators to pull together the different ideas and initiatives within the region.
Two years ago, Claire Lazarus was employed as national adviser of the SEN regional partnerships, seconded to the DfES, to help different regions liaise with one another and share best practice. Before the partnerships came into existence, Lazarus explains, many local authority SEN officers met together - "but there was no one to take the work on between meetings.
The regional partnerships give it that impetus. The facilitator is able to take projects forward and drive the regional agenda".
Although the DfES suggests broad areas of focus for the partnerships - such as developing inclusive policies and practice, and improving inter-agency working - it is up to each region to decide which SEN issues it most wishes to pursue. "The partnerships are regionally owned and much of their energy and commitment derives from the fact that they are voluntary," says Lazarus. "They do the work that the region wants - often picking up on things which are issues for other regions too, such as autism, or out-of-authority placements.
"What I try to do is make sure that the partnerships collaborate where appropriate so that we build on what they are doing. I try to ensure that this work is known within the DfES. It is a real attempt to do some joining-up in the centre."
This two-way relationship between regions and the centre means that regional research and good practice can feed directly into national policy-making. A report on autistic spectrum disorders by the West Midlands regional partnership, for instance, supported national guidance on autism issued by the DfES and Department of Health.
Regional partnerships have also collaborated to devise a national contract to set standards for out-of-authority institutions (independent or non-maintained special schools where children with special needs may be placed by their authority). Already, nearly 70 local authorities and more than 120 schools have signed up to the national contract.
Mainstream schools, looking for guidance on inclusion, directly benefit from the work of the regional partnerships in terms of the training courses, conferences, reports and resource materials that they generate.
The North East, for example, has recently set up a regional training brokerage to respond to local authorities' and schools' training needs and arrange programmes for them. The North East, together with three southern regions, also operates an accreditation scheme, which sets a standard of SEN provision for schools and helps them to self-evaluate.
Mike Dishington, SEN policy and development manager for Bournemouth readily acknowledges the support that the partnerships provide for local authorities, schools and parents, and hopes the Government will continue to fund them after next year. "The partnerships help us to plan approaches to inclusion," he says. "The more information we have, the better we are able to do it - and the more we can measure how well we are doing it... The big aim is to get away from the post code lottery that parents so often refer to and ensure that pockets of good practice are extended across the board."
WEST MIDLANDS: WORKING WITH AUTISM
The West Midlands was one of the first five regional partnerships to be formed, and from the start, the region chose to focus on work relating to children with autism.
The partnership produced an influential and detailed report on autistic spectrum disorders, using information gathered from a survey of parents and carers of children. The survey drew 625 responses, making it the largest regional survey of its kind.
The report looked at identification and assessment, training and provision, and children using home-based programmes (such as Lovaas). Its findings were taken up at national level and informed guidance for schools issued by the DfES and DoH, Good Practice on ASD.
The partnership went on to produce a regional parent-information pack, distributed to all diagnostic centres and, this autumn, further copies of the pack will be sent out to schools in the region.
A multi-agency working party is trying to achieve more consistent diagnosis across the region and regional training, to include a set of core competencies, is being developed. The partnership is now beginning to turn its attention to children with emotional, social and behavioural difficulties.
"Talking as a region we have a lot more influence," says Annette English, regional facilitator. "The working groups are important at regional level, and they can also have an effect at national level. It gives people an incentive, because they know that what they are doing is having an impact."
SOUTH WEST: SPECIAL SCHOOLS OUTREACH
Monitoring the developing relationships between special schools and the mainstream is a key area at present for the South West regional partnership. The Government has urged special schools to share their expertise with mainstream schools, which are now including pupils with increasingly complex needs, and a number of special schools are developing great confidence in this role.
Some special schools in the South West are working with the partnership to identify issues and assess progress, and this month the partnership launches a new regional report on its findings.
"People work with us in a voluntary capacity, but more and more are seeing the value of having the regional partnership as a facilitator, giving them access to expertise from across the country," says Dorothy Hadleigh, co-facilitator for the South West.
Some projects start out on a regional basis, and spread nationally. The South West, for instance, implemented an initiative to benchmark its parent partnership services (statutory services, providing advice and support for parents of children with special needs), to ensure quality.
This work has formed the basis for national benchmarking data, developed with the National Association of Parent Partnerships Services.