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Critical time for hand over

Mike Gordon says the new education team will need patience as legislation is eased into place

Congratulations to Estelle Morris. Welcome to Stephen Timms, Minister of State for School Standards, and to Baroness Ashton, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for School Standards, who has assumed responsibility for special educational needs issues. The new education team takes over at a critical time. The SEN and Disability Act is now in place. The Code of Practice (SEN), which will become operative on September 1, and the accompanying "tool kit" (good practice guidance), are expected later this month.

As well as reviewing their existing SEN policies and practices, schools and LEAs will need to consider the disability clauses of the Act, which are designed to protect children with a disability from discrimination in any aspect of school life. The Disability Rights Commission Code of Practice will be available for consultation until October and will become operative in September 2002.

This legislation and guidance, although regarded as insufficient by some groups, has been widely supported and should lead to considerable educational improvements for children with special educational needs and disabilities. However, ministers should not underestimate the difficulties that may arise. The overlap between a school's SEN arrangements and its disability discrimination duties will not always be readily understood.

Schools will have duties to ensure that disabled pupils are not treated "less favourably" and that "reasonable steps" are taken so that they are not substantially disadvantaged. This is a very new world of thinking for most teachers. There are many "ifs" and "buts" attached to any consideration of discriminatory practice. If attitudes are to be positive - and this should surely be the main aim - then the duties should not be seen as threatening. Schools will require substantial preparatory training and support.

A word of caution, too, about the recent Green Paper, Schools: Building On Success, which contains much that is commendable.

A new era in which inclusion will provide a platform to promote excellence for all, and empowerment of each individual pupil to develop their talents to the full, are sentiments that NASEN would clearly endorse. However, the paper includes proposals that have the potential to disadvantage pupils with special educational needs.

For those pupils who are ready to take their GCSEs it may be beneficial to shorten the key stage 3 curriculum. But spare a thought for those who are unable to do this. Staying on to catch up does not inspire or motivate pupils.

Also, NASEN can see the advantages of work-related learning for pupils aged 14-plus, and for vocational GCSEs, as this may be a relevant curriculum for many pupils, including some with special educational needs. However, we would not wish to see a bipartite system developing at 14-plus, with a proportion of our young people deprived of a broad and balanced curriculum at too early an age.

There are also concerns about "further increasing the extent of setting within subjects including express sets". Where is the evidence that setting is an effective educational tool? It has not been demonstrated that it will improve the achievements of those pupils in the lowest sets and widespread setting will have an adverse social effect on all pupils.

Mike Gordon is executive secretary of the National Association for Special Educational Needs, NASEN House, 45 Amber Business Village, Amber Close, Amington, Tamworth B77 4RP. Tel: 01827 311500E-mail: welcome@nasen.org.uk Web: www.nasen.org.uk

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