A THIRD of the education authorities inspected last year operated unsatisfactory strategies for the inclusion of pupils with special needs.
In a report that questions the Government's approach to special needs, the Office for Standards in Education attacked the statementing process saying it was bureaucratic and made inclusion difficult.
OFSTED's report concluded that many local education authorities were struggling to bring special needs pupils into mainstream classes because of difficulties implementing Government policies, particularly statementing.
OFSTED urged policy-makers to re-think whether statements - a detailed assessment of pupils' disabilities and learning difficulties - were needed. It described the system as "unwieldly, bureaucratic, time-consuming and costly".
It warned that statements worked against inclusion because they assigned children with special needs to a separate category. The process also diverted energies from actually helping them. Inspectors claimed the main focus of special needs work in many local authorities was now simply to produce more statements, instead of providing support for the children.
The inspectors also condemned the formulae used by authorities to allocate special needs funding to schools, saying they were "too often over-complicated to the point of obscurity".
They called on the Government to make funding systems clearer, adding that schools should not be held accountable for special needs work when it was unclear what resources they had.
LEAs were further criticised for their handling of special schools, which inspectors said often had uncertain roles - and futures.
But defenders of statements say they give parents confidence that their children's needs have been recognised by mainstream schools.
The suggestion that statements might be scrapped was attacked by the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice. John Wright, its chief executive, said: "It is absolutely untrue to say that statements work against inclusion. If statements are removed there will be enormous ramifications, because many parents will not have the confidence to send pupils to mainstream schools and will choose special schools instead."
The Department for Education and Skills said it had no plans to reconsider the use of statements, despite OFSTED's criticisms.
A spokeswoman said: "It is important to remember that statements do provide a measure of protection for some of the most vulnerable pupils and assurance for parents that their child's needs have been carefully assessed and addressed."
She added that the department agreed difficulties existed with the future role of special schools, and that a working party would report on the problem in the autumn.
The OFSTED publication comes a month after an equally damning report by the Audit Commission, which concluded many special needs pupils were being failed by the system.
Both organisations plan to publish further reports on special needs later this year.
'LEA Strategy for the Inclusion of Pupils with Special Educational Needs' is at www.ofsted.gov.uk