Editorial: Statemented intents

Poetry-lovers may detect echoes of Adrian Henri's work in the Green Paper on special education needs that the Government unveiled on Wednesday. Its language may be far from poetic, but the summary of proposals takes the form of a Henri-ish mantra:

By 2002 ...

Schools and parents will have higher expectations of the standards children with SEN can attain

By 2002 ...

National and local programmes will be in place to support increased inclusion

The list makes less riveting reading than Henri's closest equivalent:

Tonight at noon ...

Supermarkets will advertise 3d EXTRA on everything

Tonight at noon ...

The first daffodils of autumn will appear

But then the Government is promising no Henri-like miracles, even though its publicity machine has portrayed this as the most comprehensive overhaul of special needs policy since the Warnock Report in 1978.

The Green Paper does deserve a qualified welcome - because it addresses fundamental systemic faults that have caused immense problems for schools and local authorities, and left some parents of children with learning difficulties deeply frustrated.

It is true that provision for pupils with special needs has improved markedly since the 1960s, and that children who were once labelled ineducable and shunted off into not very "special" schools are now treated much more humanely.

But during the 1990s it has become clear that Warnock's good intentions have been badly distorted. The cost of the highly bureaucratic statementing process has ballooned way beyond expectations and 233,000 children - 50 per cent more than anticipated - now have statements of special need. This has had a devastating effect on the finances of local authorities where up to 7 per cent of children are statemented, especially as some pupils have been guaranteed their additional help for up to 10 years.

Unfortunately, the SEN tribunal system has also tended to reward the children who have the best advocates, rather than those with the greatest need.

A further problem is that LEAs have widely differing policies on the integration of SEN children in mainstream schools. Some, like Newham, have decided to close their special schools; others have dragged their heels. Special needs co-ordinators, particularly in primary schools, have been hopelessly overloaded with paperwork and other responsibilities, and schools have received insufficient help in dealing with the growing numbers of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. It is also clear that many teachers have been inadequately trained; some left college unaware what EBD stood for.

The Green Paper acknowledges these problems. It recognises that the number of children being statemented will have to be reduced, although this can only be achieved if learning problems are identified and remedied earlier. Parents of SEN children will not be impressed by some of the Government's weak declarations of intent, such as its hope that "by 2002 ... the great majority of special needs assessments" will be completed within the statutory timetable.

But there are grounds for optimism. The Government clearly wants to offer SEN children a substantially better deal - without breaking the budget. There will be new qualifications for SEN pupils at 16, and greater access to information technology. The code of practice will be simplified, and increased dialogue between parents, schools and LEAs will be encouraged. More teachers and classroom assistants will also receive training in how to meet SEN children's needs.

Primary schools will eagerly await the promised national programme to help them tackle emotional and behavioural difficulties at an earlier stage. If it materialises, extra support from the educational psychology and speech therapy services will be welcome too. The reduction in statementing must not be used as an excuse for dispensing with their services.

In the long term, however, we may need more radical policies. Statementing for mainstream pupils may have to be abandoned, along with the tribunal system - although other, less bureaucratic, ways of protecting children's interests would then have to be found. Money for SEN children in mainstream schools may have to be clearly earmarked. Although many teachers display superhuman patience in their dealings with EBD children, it is true that greater awareness of the legitimate anxieties of parents is also needed. As the parent of an SEN child pointed out in last week's TES, the Government's special needs task force contains not a single representat ive of a parents' organisation. That oversight should be remedied as soon as possible.

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