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Lessons from Denmark

The fraught journey to successful adulthood, is especially difficult for young people with special educational needs. Education, health and social services can abdicate or argue about responsibilities. Support can disappear and not be replaced. Networks become fragmented and bewildering once young people begin to move beyond the security of school.

My recent study visit to Denmark showed me that it is not an isolated issue. It also demonstrated that successful transition is not solely about vision or resources Denmark after all is an egalitarian society with a strong commitment to public welfare expenditure.

But it is crucial to have a clear system of transition planning and Denmark certainly has this.

A vital component of that system is the kurator, or transition specialist. Kurators are qualified teachers who have had extra training both in special education and in particular on transition issues. They are employed by and work within the local school system. They spend some time in direct teaching but at least half of their time is dedicated to improving the quality of the movement from school to adult life. There is a national association of kurators, which is involved in lobbying, training and information exchange.

The kurator's role eludes easy definition. Their authority and influence is not formal, but a reflection of their abilities and personalities. Each operates within and as part of a formalised system of planning which begins for the children from the age of 13. Other experts such as psychologists are also at hand.

The kurator's special role has two key parts. First, they are expected to build up extensive knowledge of the local community and develop opportunities for vocational training, supported employment and community participation. Teachers do not become kurators until they have lived and taught in an area or several years in order to built up sufficient local knowledge to be effective.

Second, they have a specific caseload of young people 50 is the average. They are expected to work flexibly with each young person according to need and circumstance. "I make of my job what I should," one kurator told me. "I can be an advocate, a catalyst, a bargainer, a project leader, a curriculum organiser, a guide or a professional friend."

The befriending role in particular goes beyond the young person - the kurator links with the parents and family to ensure their concerns and insights are not neglected. Kurators usually stay in contact until the young people have reached their mid-20's often to ensure that they are firmly established.

So what can the kurator system teach us? We already have some people doing similar work here but the subtle combination of discrete specialism and yet flexible application is unique to Denmark.

The recently introduced Department for Education and Employment Code of Practice for the Identification and Assessment of Special Education Needs has for the first time set out a national standard for coherent and imaginative transitional planning.

We need to try innovative ways of making the system come alive. Is there anyone out there willing to give the kurator system a try?

Phil Madden is director of social work at Home Farm Trust, a national voluntary organisation providing services for people with learning disability

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