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Special needs care plagued by delays

Local education authorities are making slow progress in caring for pupils with special educational needs, according to a new report from the Audit Commission.

Councils are still wasting money by failing to transfer staff from special schools into the mainstream, and the majority of LEAs are still breaking the six-month time limit for issuing statements of special educational need - the formal promises of help for the most vulnerable.

In 1992 the Commission and Her Majesty's Inspectorate issued an influential report which made wide-ranging criticisms of the special needs system. They found that LEAs were routinely delaying statements, and that they were vague when finally issued. There was also a lack of consistency in the way that children were treated within and between local authorities.

This new report, based on a sample of audits from 103 LEAs in 1993, finds many of the same faults.

Despite a gradual trend towards placing disabled pupils alongside their peers in mainstream, rather than in special schools, the majority of LEAs have failed to transfer the staff with them. This means that they are missing out on savings or redeployment possibilities of Pounds 31 million a year, says the Audit Commission.

While the report acknowledges that the time for issuing statements has dropped by an average of two months since the previous report in 1992, the majority in 1993 were still taking longer than the six months allowed under regulations published recently.

It hints that councils find this delay convenient: "It was also apparent that for some LEAs, constraints on the overall budget for special needs may provide a disincentive to address delays."

Even though most councils had issued new policies since 1992, these are lengthy, ill-focused, contained little reference to aims and objectives and were not supported by performance indicators, say the auditors.

Many schools are still unaware of how much money is set aside for special needs in their local management formula. Some believe they receive no money. LEAs did not have effective systems in place for holding schools to account for their work in special needs.

These problems may improve under the new Code of Practice for the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs as the separate responsibilities of schools and LEAs are clearly spelt out.

Most LEAs are still using the number of free school meals as a way of determining special needs funding. Few had delegated funding for support services to schools, even though schools wanted control of the money.

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