As I leaf through back numbers of some of the education journals in my "things to read" pile, I wonder about the contradictory behaviour of educational professionals. On the one hand, there is a growing number of articles bemoaning the increasing workload of special educational needs co-ordinators and SEN administrators, trying desperately to cope with the demands of the 1993 Education Act and the SEN Code of Practice. On the other, there are glowing descriptions of the wonderful schemes thought up by LEAs to distribute money to schools fairly, so they can meet their duties under the Code.
Yet it is apparent that these audits and moderation procedures require the input of those professionals who are already so hard-pressed. In one LEA, whose procedure has had favourable press recently, primary and secondary SENCOs visit schools in pairs, with an educational psychologist, to moderate their SEN registers. Although this means a reduction in level of service to schools it is considered a good investment of time. In another, psychologists and headteachers sit on moderation panels, scrutinising audit returns, with accompanying reading scores, that have taken school SENCOs hours to complete.
Why are they doing this? One reason has to do with the clear need for LEAs to allocate money for pupils at stages 1-3 of the Code. The hope is thus to reduce the impetus to refer pupils for formal assessment and slow down the growth of the already enormous statement mountain. The second reason seems to be the poor publicity that proxy indicators of need, such as free school meals, have received, particularly in more affluent areas.
Research shows that most pupils with SEN have either moderate learning difficulties or emotional and behavioural problems. Furthermore, the correlation between these types of difficulty and social deprivation is extremely high, particularly when viewed on a whole-school basis. Finally, eligibility for free meals is probably the best existing indicator of social deprivation. However, some schools don't like the connection. As a consequence many LEAs have sought to finda more acceptable alternative.
But while all the SENCOs, psychologists and special needs officers are tearing their hair out over statements and reviews, time limits and tribunals, what else is going on in schools? First, teachers in Year 6, as well as their colleagues in Year 2, are now administering SATs to their entire year group each spring. These 10 and 11-year-old children are due to transfer to secondary school the following September. Thus every secondary school should now know how many children it will be receiving who are underperforming in basic skills. If these figures are combined to give each secondary school a score, we already have the basis for equitable SEN funding.
Since the tests are being given by primary schools, which want to be seen in a good light in the impending league tables, they are likely to ensure that pupils do their best. Further, since the money will be given to the secondary schools, good schools will not be penalised or poor schools rewarded, as frequently occurs under present audit systems. Pupils with learning difficulties, both general and specific, and pupils with emotional and behavioural problems are likely to be low achievers. Therefore, such a system should appear fairer than one based on free school meals. Secondary schools certainly have variations in the ability of the new intake from year to year, but these tend to balance out. Thus a global sum for the whole school, derived from the Year 7 intake, is likely to be as acceptable as any other and much less time-consuming to produce.
So what about the primaries? The Government is just about to introduce "baseline assessment" for children in their first weeks of school. Again this should, if it is broad-based enough, pick up both those children delayed in their development by social deprivation and those with more class-free disabilities. It should again be an incentive to good schools. With no risk of losing extra help, just when children are beginning to succeed, good schools will be encouraged to use their SEN funding wisely, by making long-term plans.
Sensible LEAs, using SATs and baseline assessment results as a basis for SEN funding, could have the whole system computerised. To minimise data handling, primary schools could send in their results on disc once testing was completed, to be entered up by the education office. Secondary schools would send in the names of the Year 7 pupils who actually arrive in September, so that the formula could be run after Form 7 is completed and SEN funding agreed for the next April. No teacher would have to complete a single extra form or give a single extra reading test. No SENCO would have to rush around madly trying to collate audit information. No child would be subjected to any more tests than they would expect to take anyway.
No SENCO, educational psychologist or advisory teacher would need to give up precious time to visit schools or sit on panels to moderate audit returns. No SEN officer would need to devote hours or weeks to working out complex funding formulas. No good schools would feel hard done-by, when their success with difficult pupils was rewarded by losing support. No poor schools would be allocated extra funding year on year to fritter away, without the need to justify its use. Finally, all schools with needy pupils would receive their fair share of the money available.
So why has no one else thought of it? It's probably just too simple.
Stephanie Lorenz is a chartered educational psychologist and special needs consultant