Britain's most vulnerable children are still being forced to wait far too long for the expert help they need, according to the Audit Commission.
For the second year running, councils which fail most dramatically to meet the Government's six-month target for the issuing of statements of special educational need have been given a sharp rap on the knuckles by the auditors, although the report acknowledges that there has been an overall improvement on last year.
Two out of three councils performed better in 1994-5 than in 1993-4, with the most marked improvement occurring in those authorities that did worst last year, say the auditors. However, in a third of authorities performance either remained the same or worsened. This, said Paul Vevers, the Audit Commission's assistant director, corresponds with the general picture across all services that "those councils who did so badly that they became the focus of local attention have improved the most, but the rest have not been very ambitious".
The poorest performers last year improved by an average of 17 per cent compared with a 7 per cent overall improvement.
The most embarrassing finding for the councils was that the most sluggish authorities this year were not the ones with the heaviest workloads. "These councils," admonishes the commission, "should learn the lessons from the experience of others who have performed better. The process is similar in all councils and significant variations between councils will be difficult for parents to understand."
The Audit Commission's performance indicators for special needs are more subtle than those used, for example, for under fives, but it has not attempted to take into account the number of parents complaining to the special needs tribunal, which might have been useful.
Overall, the performance of the London boroughs improved from 20 per cent issuing statements within six months in 1993-4 to 29 per cent in 94-95, the metropolitan councils from 19 per cent to 24 per cent, while the county councils, which scored 33 per cent last time round, achieved a more healthy-looking 41 per cent.
The Audit Commission's use of improvement statistics can be slightly misleading; for instance, among the metropolitan authorities, Liverpool is performing startlingly less well than last year, but with 43 per cent of statements being processed within six months it is still way above the average for metropolitan authorities (24 per cent). Conversely, Sandwell in the West Midlands registered a slight improvement, but the council is processing a mere 4 per cent of statements in the required time - and this is an authority which has only 714 children (1.7 per cent) with statements. Other poor performers among the mets are Wolverhampton (4 per cent) and Walsall (1 per cent) though they have higher proportions of pupils with statements.
There were also dramatic variations among London boroughs. Star performers Camden and Westminster prepared 70 per cent of statements in time, compared to Ealing and Enfield which could not manage to deliver one between them. The prize for the most improved performance goes to Greenwich. The latter's director of education, Julien Kramer, said this was because the assessment procedure had been computerised and the borough had conscientiously implemented the Code of Practice.
A spokeswoman for Ealing attributed the council's poor ranking to its own failure to collect data correctly.
Of the counties, the five that performed worst last year - Gloucestershire, Hereford and Worcester, Hampshire and Norfolk - were improved the most this time around.
David Webster, secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, said that the extreme variations in councils' performance could be explained partly by a shortage of educational psychologists. "Things were much worse before the Code of Practice, when delays of two or three years were not uncommon. The authorities I know best are getting there slowly, but the number of statements is still increasing, causing huge administrative problems." He agreed that some councils delay statements to avoid the extra expense they entail.
Councils such as Ealing, Enfield and Sandwell will have an even tougher job keeping up with their neighbours next year because the Audit Commission is planning to change from using six months as an indicator of efficiency to 18 weeks.