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The special report

Despite a cash infusion the number of statemented children continues to grow. Karen Thornton looks at the latest Audit Commission findings.

The extra cash being spent on children with special needs in mainstream schools has not cut the number of statements, the Audit Commission says.

The finding - in a new report published today - underlines the difficulties the Government faces in getting schools to improve special needs education without statementing pupils.

The Audit Commission report is an update on Getting In On The Act, its 1992 publication which contributed to the introduction of the special needs code of practice.

It says that more statements of special educational need are being made within government-set target times, and a higher proportion of statemented children are being educated in mainstream schools - 55 per cent now compared with 40 per cent in 1992.

But education authorities vary widely on identifying special needs and the number of statements they issue. National research on why the number of children with special needs statements - now one in 50, compared to one in 66 five years ago - continues to grow.

Special needs absorb 15 per cent of the education budget and many authorities could improve services, the report says.

The Government's Green Paper urged mainstream schools to meet more complex pupil needs without statementing. However, the Audit Commission report found there was no evidence that authorities which spent more on children had fewer statemented pupils.

This could be down to variations in education authorities' policies on issuing statements or to the need in their area, says Bob Chilton, the Audit Commission's local government director and report author.

The report asks whether heads and parents were aware authorities were putting extra money into schools to forestall statements and whether the money was being used as intended.

"Pressure could be coming from parents. It could also be coming from schools, who see it as a route to additional resources. It begs the question, what is the entry point for additional money? How low, how high, how variable from one place to another?" he said.

"We are not arguing it should be the same everywhere. Local authorities are entitled to have different policies. But they ought to know what they are and why they are in place. The degree of variation we observe statistically does raise the question of how well thought out this is everywhere.

"It's not helpful if people don't even know what current procedures and criteria are. They may want to argue about them, but there should be some degree of clarity, otherwise you get unrealistic expectations or people generally pressuring for the best for their child or school."

The report notes a general widening of policy variations between authorities, since the Commission's 1992 publication. For example, the proportion of children with a statement ranges from less than 1 per cent in some authorities to more than 4 per cent of the under-19 population in others. The total number of children with identified needs ranges from 7 to 20 per cent.

"Some differences in the proportion of children identified as having special needs are to be expected, resulting from the different socio-economic make-up of each area, but this is unlikely to explain all the variation observed, " notes the report.

"The factors that determine the level of special needs identified in an education authority are complex, and warrant closer investigation at the national level, particularly in view of the growth in the number of children with identified special educational need."

There are also variations in the number of assessments which lead to statements - with some authorities issuing a statement to every child who is assessed, and others making statements in less than 80 per cent of cases.

Some special schools were expected to close as more students with special needs went into the mainstream. But the parallel increase in the number of statemented students has kept special schools open.

Getting in on the Act: a review of progress on special educational needs The review found: * The number of statemented children is up 35 per cent since 1992.

* Spending on special educational needs is up a quarter, at 15 per cent of the total spent on education.

* More statemented children are in mainstream schools - up from 40 to 55 per cent.

* Nearly half of draft statements were issued in 18 weeks last year, compared to 40 per cent in 199596.

But: * There are wide variations in how services are delivered locally.

* The proportion of statemented children ranges from less than 1 per cent to more than 4 per cent between education authorities.

* The number of assessments leading to statements ranges from less than 80 per cent to 100 per cent.

The review recommends: * Research on the increasing number of statemented children.

* Education authorities re-examine their special needs provision, by comparison with other councils and with the help of auditors.

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