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A special need for a civilised appraisal

What is a "civilised" society? Very often when this question is asked, somebody will say: "One that treats its most vulnerable members properly. "

In education terms, this must relate particularly to children with special educational needs. What measures do we have to assess how we are doing in this respect?

Here we run into enormous difficulty because there is no agreement between those devising the measures and those delivering the service. For instance, we know, authority by authority, how many children have a statement of special educational need. But is a high score creditable and a low score blameworthy? Or vice versa?

A local education authority that has a high proportion of statemented children may be one that has a policy commitment to distributing a high proportion of its budget to vulnerable children. Or it may be one where schools have acquired a blackmailing position: "Statement this child or we will exclude him."

Conversely, an LEA with a low proportion of statemented children may be one which has developed a highly professional awareness within its schools of the need for early intervention. Or it could be one which exerts an iron discipline on those who administer its special needs budget and refuses to allow it to become demand-led.

Is the extent of statementing a reliable indication of need? Or does it merely reflect the extent to which the education committee or chief education officer has imposed an unofficial cap on demand? National statistics indicate that it is a combination of the two, a rough correlation to areas of disadvantage, but none the less considerable variation exists between comparable authorities.

Another national measure is the time the LEA takes to prepare a statement. The law sets a limit of six months, but the majority of LEAs default on this stringent requirement. The proportion of statements of special need prepared by inner London boroughs within six months varies from between 3 and 63 per cent. Is the measure of how closely we conform a fair measure of how well we treat the most vulnerable members of society? Is it always true that expediting the process is to their advantage?

Another measure is the proportion of children in special schools. Perhaps in less complicated times, this measure would have been taken at face value. The Inner London Education Authority in the 1960s undoubtedly spent more than the national average on special schools. At that time this would have been regarded as "progressive". But its heirs in the 1990s find themselves lambasted on the grounds of equal opportunities for failing to promote "inclusive education".

The Audit Commission, which did us all a service by letting in a draught of fresh air with its breezy approach in "Getting in on the Act", at the same time came too tritely to the conclusion that we could all control our budgets by closing special schools. "Have they tried it?" many a battered education officer might ask after a meeting with parents at a special school proposed for closure, and the barrage of members' enquiries that follows it. If only it were that simple! And, even taking politics out of it, is it possible to define what degree of inclusiveness is possible or desirable?

All of these unanswered, and probably unanswerable, questions lead me to the conclusion that none of the national measures, whether demanded by the Citizen's Charter or the Audit Commission, help in any serious way in the process of reviewing our own services for children with special educational needs. Such a process needs a deeper and more thorough scrutiny.

For instance, how often is it discussed at senior levels and how carefully is it monitored? How much innovation is taking place? What efforts are we making to hear the views of clients? In fact this is probably the one area where processes and attitudes are a surer guide to the quality of provision than outcomes. As an "outcomes" enthusiast I do not make that concession lightly. In general I believe that we have paid far too little attention to statistical evidence in education. But there always have to be exceptions, and special education is one. That is not to say that there are no objective measures of success, merely that they need to be far more sensitively devised and not weighted with too much quantitative significance.

Rowing against the tide, the special education experts have had a hard time of it in the Social Darwinist climate of the past 15 years. With local management of schools wiping out central support budgets and exclusion rates rising as tolerance thresholds fall, there have been few brownie points to be won from achieving excellence in relation to educational needs.

The new SEN Code of Practice may mark a perceptible change. When this first came out, during a fairly bleak period of marginalisation not only for special educational needs but for the very idea of LEA intervention, it seemed extraordinarily counter-cultural.

A right-wing Conservative government which wanted to see the back of the LEAs actually proposing a set of arrangements which would bind schools and local authorities ever closer! The cynics concluded that ministers hadn't noticed what was happening because special needs were not a priority. The less cynical thought that the message was that LEAs were to be confirmed and enhanced in their "safety-net" role, and that neither DFE officials nor politicians had realised that the implications of the code of practice would influence the whole operation of local management.

Be that as it may, with the instigation of the code of practice from September we are entering a new era of partnership: between schools and between schools and LEAs. A partnership - let us hope - between education, health and social services. If it fails, whether through lack of resources or dialogue or any other cause, the ripples will spread well beyond the "Warnock 20 per cent" who will have special needs at some time in their school life.

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