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Paying special attention

Mainstream teachers have new responsibilities in ensuring all needs are recognised. Carolyn O'Grady looks at the issues.

If the Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Needs attempts to establish one thing, it is that special needs should not be an area of concern safely tucked under the wing of the special needs co-ordinator or isolated in special needs schools. Class and subject teachers are given a key role in identifying and making arrangements for the education of the 20 per cent of their pupils who, it is estimated, have special educational needs.

The Code of Practice arises from the l993 Education Act and was introduced last year to offer a better deal to the notional 18 per cent of children with special needs who do not receive a legally binding statement of provision under the l981 Education Act.

Both the needs of the estimated 2 per cent of children who need statements and those of the other 18 per cent of children, whose needs it appears were being relatively neglected, are emphasised.

The Code sets out in painstaking detail principles and procedures to be followed. These are placed in the context of the school's governing body's responsibilities for providing for children with special needs. It does not have the force of law, though those to whom it applies have a statutory duty to "have regard to it". Otherwise the response of schools and others to it "may vary according to circumstances and over time".

Five stages (see box) are set out. During stages one, two and three identification, care and monitoring is based in schools, though external specialists may be called on for advice and support. During stages three and four the local authority shares responsibility with schools.

At stage two, the major responsibility for managing special needs provision is placed with the special needs co-ordinator, a role often taken by headteachers or deputies in small schools and by the leader of the learning support team in large schools.

At stage three, the SEN co-ordinators share that responsibility with class or year teacher and with specialist services.

It is at stage one, however, that the duties of the class or subject teacher appear toughest. Charged with identifying children's special needs and with taking initial steps to meet them, teachers consult the SEN co-ordinator, but most of the burden falls on their shoulders.

The trigger for this stage is the registration of concern that a child is showing signs of special educational needs together with evidence for that concern. The teacher informs the headteacher and SEN co-ordinator and collects records, including national curriculum attainments, standardised test results and observations of behaviour together with known health and social problems. The SEN co-ordinator gathers information from the school doctor, the child's GP, social services or education welfare services.

It falls on the teacher to discuss the difficulties with the child and with the child's parents.

Armed with the information, the teacher then considers whether to continue the child's current educational arrangements, seek further advice or draw up an individual education plan for the child. This sets out special provision including teaching requirements, medical requirements and pastoral care arrangements. Arrangements for monitoring the child's progress are also made and for a review, the outcome of which might be a new individual education plan, cessation of special provision or moving on to stage two.

It is easy to see why stage one is causing some consternation. Teachers understandably doubt their ability to recognise the many different types of disability and learning difficulty. As a group of special needs co-ordinators put it: "Teachers may . . . not have the time, training or experience to distinguish between a temporary hearing loss, a mild co-ordination difficulty, a receptive language problem and laziness."

Causing particular concern are emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD). How do you tell the difference between high-spiritedness and EBD? And when you do recognise that a child has emotional and behavioural difficulties what do you do about it? Moreover, with exclusions from schools rising, EBD can be a political hot potato within a school and a community, reflecting a school's level of tolerance and compassion and whether it perceives a need to compete academically with other schools.

Hearing loss and visual impairment, which are hard for the non-expert to recognise, is another difficult area. Communication difficulties can also be hard to define. Disorders like bulimia and anorexia, which are mentioned in the Code, require very careful handling. It all adds up to a lot of knowledge for which some training, both initial and in-service, is undoubtedly required. At the moment, however, that training and the necessary expert support is by no means guaranteed.

Many authorities and special needs organisations are producing guidelines on identification, assessment, record keeping and individual education plans, and organising training programmes for class teachers on the Code and its implications. But implementation of the Code is patchy. Even in those authorities chosen as models - for the Code is based on existing "good practice" - it is doubtful whether schools will have fulfilled all its recommendations. Urban areas have particular problems: the 20 per cent can easily be 30 per cent and schools have to deal with oversized classes and poor buildings.

The Government's reluctance so far to provide new money for implementation has not helped, and neither have cutbacks in support services. And, though it is acknowledged that training is necessary, especially for the special needs co-ordinators, but also for the class and subject teachers, there is concern about the lack of money set aside for this purpose and deficiencies in monitoring courses.

Generally, the Code has been welcomed, but it is still too early to say whether it can be effectively implemented. For this to happen, more consideration will have to given to helping the classroom teacher to bring special needs to the forefront of his or her repertoire of skills.


The five stages

Stage l: class or subject teachers identify a child's special educational needs and, consulting the school's SEN co-ordinator, gather information and take initial action.

Stage 2: the school's SEN co-ordinator takes lead responsibility for managing the child's special educational providing, working with the child's teachers.

Stage 3: teachers and the SEN co-ordinator are supported by specialists from outside the school.

Stage 4: the local education authority consider the need for a statutory assessment and, if appropriate, make a multi-disciplinary assessment.

Stage 5: the LEA considers the need for a statement of special educational needs and, if appropriate, make a statement and arrange, monitor and review provision.

Special educational needs are defined in the 1993 Education Act as follows: A child has special educational needs if he or she has a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for him her.

A child has a learning difficulty if he or she: a) has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age.

b) has a disability which either prevents or hinders the child from making use of educational facilities of a kind provided for children of the same age in schools within the area of the local education authority.

c) is under five and falls within the definition at a) or b) above or would do if special educational provision was not made for the child.

A child must not be regarded as having a learning difficulty solely because the language or form of language of the home is different from the language in which he or she is or will be taught.

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