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Good job but rein in SEN spending

Estyn praises authorities but cautions on budgets. Felicity Waters reports

"Unsustainable" overspends on services for special educational needs pupils in north-west Wales need to be brought under control, according to newly-published inspection reports.

But, overall, Gwynedd and Anglesey education authorities are doing a good job in meeting the needs of SEN pupils, says the inspection agency, Estyn.

The two counties work together in most areas of SEN provision, via a joint committee made up of seven elected members from each authority.

They have higher than average numbers of pupils with statements of special needs but, despite the financial pressures, both were praised by inspectors for their clear vision for the service and their commitment to inclusion.

However, while the prospects for improvement are described as "promising" for Gwynedd, they are "uncertain" for Anglesey - mainly because of budget deficits.

In Gwynedd, "regular overspending brings an unhelpful degree of instability to the planning of the education service, and to SEN planning in particular", according to inspectors. Anglesey was criticised for its "consistent pattern of overspending" and this was described as "unsustainable in the longer term".

Both authorities were praised for the higher than average number of special needs pupils taught in mainstream classes and for effective assessment and intervention strategies in the early years, which enabled most pupils to attend their local school.

Their provision of bilingual staff with SEN expertise was commended, and the two authorities were described as among the best in Wales for ensuring that most young people leave school with at least one recognised qualification.

But inspectors said schools needed to be more aware of how responsibilities were shared between agencies and resources spent. There was also too little planning of SEN services with other agencies in both counties.

Richard Parry Jones, Anglesey's education director, said the report would be a useful tool for developing further the "effective and efficient collaborative approach" adopted in the two counties for delivering high-standard SEN services to pupils and parents.

He added: "Given the high proportion of pupils integrated into mainstream education, careful management of resources is needed together with effective deployment of learning support assistants. These matters are being addressed in an action plan to be submitted for approval."

Both authorities have drafted plans. Estyn approved of Anglesey's funding initiatives with social services and health providers, but said its SEN budget did not address growth in demand.

Particular concerns centred on the provision of LSAs in mainstream schools and extra teaching for pupils with dyslexia.

A Gwynedd LEA spokesperson said it would be consulting heads on its inspection report, with a full action plan due to be presented to Estyn in October.

How they shaped up for inspection

Verdict on Anglesey

Strengths:

* clear vision for the service

* bilingual staff

* percentage of pupils included in mainstream classes higher than Welsh average

* close co-operation between authority and joint committee Weaknesses:

* lack of understanding by schools of roles of agencies and how resources are spent

* inefficiencies in the deployment of learning support assistants

* improvement plan fails to address special educational needs budget deficit

* Not enough SEN service developments planned at strategic level with other agencies Verdict on Gwynedd Strengths:

* clear vision for the service

* committed to the strategy of inclusion

* special schools and learning centres cater for a broad range of needs

* rigorous monitoring of schools' needs effective in raising profile of SEN as a whole-school issue

Weaknesses:

* lack of understanding by schools of roles of agencies and how resources are spent

* schools over-dependent on centrally-funded SEN service

* lack of flexibility in use of spare places in learning centres

* not enough information about individual pupil progress

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