When a child has severe learning difficulties which a school cannot reasonably be expected to remedy from its own budget alone, the local authority must issue a statement of special needs and ensure that those needs are met. But how much can any school be expected to spend on special help for individual children? What is the threshold figure beyond which the authority should pay?
That is the question the new special needs tribunals will have to answer and one which schools' special needs policies should take into account. But as the table of thresholds for different local authorities shows, the figure varies a great deal from area to area.
The sums different local authorities specifically allocate to the learning difficulties of children without statements range in England from zero to Pounds 30,627 per hundred children. These dramatic differences must have a profound effect on schools' ability to implement the Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs.
Authorities with low or apparently non-existent allocations often assert that part of the general funding for schools ought to be spent on special needs. But there are strong grounds for suggesting schools should not be expected to top up the special needs allocation out of funds intended to pay forthe general education of all pupils.
The Government controls local authority expenditure and provides about half the money through the revenue support grant. Sixteen per cent of that grant is allocated on the basis of different levels of additional educational needs based on a national index of socio-economic deprivation.
The Government estimates that, in order to provide the same standard of education nationally, the additional educational needs expenditure for primary children would range from Pounds 18,200 per 100 children in the least deprived authorities to Pounds 82,200 per 100 children in the poorest areas.
The Government clearly expects those differences in funding to be passed on to individual schools. The code of practice says: "Most mainstream schools should have within their delegated budget some funding which reflects the additional needs of pupils with special educational needs. LEA-maintained schools should receive this through local management schemes which are weighted for the incidence of special educational needs within the authority."
Almost all education authorities identify, in the Section 42 budget statements for schools, a sum for additional or special educational needs in each school for pupils without statements.
Payments are based on either an audit of special needs, or socio-economic factors such as free school meals, or performancetesting, or a combination of these measures.
Having identified a special needs allocation in this way, an LEA cannot convincingly assert that schools ought to be spending further money on special provision for individual children, particularly since the incidence of special needs varies as much within local authorities as between them.
A survey of learning difficulties in Lambeth primary schools showed a range from no children with special needs to 30 per cent. A small study in Nottinghamshire gave a range of zero to 38 per cent in primary schools. An audit of secondary schools in Kent shows a range from 12 per cent to 58 per cent. That audit excluded grammar schools, where there ought to be few, if any, pupils with learning difficulties.
The different levels of special needs in each school means that if general funds are allocated by a school to provide additional help to children with special needs, children who do not have special needs will have fewer resources allocated to them than their peers in neighbouring schools with lower levels of need. This effect will be exaggerated where the neighbours are grammar schools or selective grant-maintained schools.
Authorities with zero or low special needs allocations may argue that their schools are all very similar. Such a claim is questionable and should be substantiated with clear evidence. But it is still not a justification for identifying an inadequate sum for special needs. The Corporation of London has only one school. It nevertheless allocates special needs funding on the basis of performance testing and numbers of pupils eligible for free meals. It seems to me that schools are entitled to conclude that their specific allocations for additional or special educational needs are what they are expected to use to meet those needs. More particularly, they are the upper limits on the levels of spending to be allocated to individual children with special needs.
The table shows additional needs allocations in each authority in England for 199495 (Column D). The figures are the average sum available per hundred children in that authority, though some schools will receive more or less through the workings of the formula. In Southwark the average figure given is Pounds 15,979 per hundred children, although individual schools received between Pounds 3,000 and Pounds 23,000 per hundred children.
The London Borough of Newham allocates no money on the basis of additional needs. Newham would perhaps say that the borough is uniquely uniform with no areas that are richer or poorer and that special needs funding is included in the general allocation to schools. Such an argument is not sustainable, and not only for the reasons given above. Newham also delegates to schools the lowest proportion of the standard spending assessment of any authority in England. The SSA is the Government's estimate of the spending necessary to provide a standard level of education.
In some LEAs, the entire budget for children with special needs but without statements has been delegated to schools, in others part has been delegated and part is spent by the LEA centrally. Column B of the table shows the sum per 100 children which is held centrally. Column C shows the sum which has been delegated.
The dramatically differing allocations must affect the extent to which schools can be reasonably expected to implement the code of practice. In some areas schools have budgets which permit substantial provision for individual children. In others schools cannot be expected to implement the code to any meaningful degree.
The amount spent on children with special needs but without statements to a large extent determines the threshold at which the authority is obliged to make a statement. The code of practice states: "The main grounds on which the LEA may decide that it must make a statement is when the LEA concludes that all the special provision necessary to meet the child's needs cannot reasonably be provided within the resources normally available to mainstream schools in the area."
Where the resources allocated for special needs are substantial, there will be less need for statements. The new special needs tribunals will need to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the annual sum that schools in the particular LEA can reasonably afford to spend on special provision for a single child. That sum is the statement threshold. It is a constant within each LEA, but will vary substantially from one LEA to another.
The statement threshold may be determined by costing the levels of provision which are suggested for children at each of the three school-based stages described in the code. By my reckoning, that produces a cost ratio between children at stages 1, 2 and 3 of 1:3:12. Using a similar methodology, Kent has derived a cost ratio of 1:4:10.
The only further information needed is the proportions of children in the LEA who are at stages 1, 2 and 3. Those proportions may vary from one authority to another but as many schools now maintain SEN registers, the relevant figures can be discovered.
An approximation of the statement thresholds (column F) can be made by predicting the SEN levels in each LEA from the national additional educational needs index of socio-economic deprivation (column E). Assuming a national distribution of SEN based on the Warnock suggestion that 20 per cent of children have special educational needs at some point, at any time 7 per cent of children are likely to be at stage 1, 4 per cent at stage 2 and 3 per cent at stage 3. A further one per cent will have statements in mainstream schools.
Applying those figures to the cost ratio 1:3:12, a fair allocation to a child at stage 3 would be 0.179 multiplied by the SEN allocation per hundred children. In an LEA where SEN levels are the national average and the SEN allocation is Pounds 15,000 per hundred children, the statement threshold would be Pounds 2,685. That sum would purchase annually, say, five hours a week from a classroom assistant, one hour a week from a specialist teacher, a portable word-processor and Pounds 100 of materials. A school could reasonably expect the authority to meet any requirements above this through a statement.
Estimates of the statement thresholds (column F) for each local authority can be made by multiplying the special needs allocation per 100 children by 0.179 and dividing the result by the additional needs index (column E). This produces statement thresholds which vary from zero in the case of Newham to Pounds 5,954 in North Tyneside.
Authorities which allocate little to special educational needs will need to issue a great many statements. In high-spending authorities statements will rarely be necessary. Schools and local authorities would be well advised to reach agreement about the statement threshold in the contexts of their budgets as a whole.
* Peter Bibby is a barrister and a primary school governor.