A new Warnock for a new millennium;Comment;Opinion

20th March 1998 at 00:00
This year marks an interesting silver jubilee but the extent to which it may be "celebrated", if at all, remains to be seen. The then Secretary of State for Education and Science, Margaret Thatcher, announced in November 1973 the appointment of a committee of inquiry under the chairmanship of Mary Warnock "to review educational provision in England, Scotland and Wales for children and young people handicapped by disabilities of body or mind . . . and to make recommendations".

The committee's report, Special Educational Needs, was delivered in March 1978, almost simultaneously with the publication of the Scottish Education Department's HMI report on The Education of Pupils With Learning Difficulties. The two publications gave rise to legislation in 1981 which amended the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 and set in train the process of "recording" pupils with special educational needs.

Hailed as a landmark of its kind and influential in determining the patterns of working by educational psychologists, the report and its related legislation have come in for criticism over the intervening years, not least by its chairman. Writing in the Observer in October 1992, Baroness Warnock delivered herself of a damning indictment: "The main fault of the report on special education . . . which lay behind the 1981 Act, was its naivete. Indeed it now appears naive to the point of idiocy."

Today, the Warnock models of practice are seen to be inadequate and inappropriate in the context of a more interactionist and inter-professional mode of service delivery. The legislative requirement that children whose special educational needs "require regular review" should have these needs "recorded" has been the object of continued critical comment from those professional groups most closely concerned with the procedures.

The Warnock concept of "parents as partners" would seem to have been replaced with "parents as adversaries", as the growing number of appeals against decisions of education authorities, would appear to testify. The essentially simplistic and descriptive notions of "integrated provision" have been superseded by a much more sophisticated argument concerned with "inclusive education". What has gone wrong? First, it is important to remember that the Warnock report was a product of a particular time and a prevailing orthodoxy. Since 1978, the paradigm of needs-based assessment along a uni-dimensional continuum of special educational needs developed yet "society", in the form of professional opinion, practice and attitudes, had moved away from that position. In essence then, from our 1998 perspective, we should not be too condemnatory of a report whose genesis lay in thinking and practice of at least a quarter century ago.

A much more important point remains, however. There is a range of confusing and sometimes contradictory legislation, the cumulative effect of which would seem to be hindering rather than helping to support individuals with special educational needs, by diverting professionals away from their principal task of delivering such support. For example, the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 as amended, together with its supporting circulars, reflects in its various sections an outmoded model of psychological practice. In contrast, the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 offers a much more inclusive definition of the needs of children. The effect is that two parallel pieces of legislation, aimed at improving and increasing the delivery of services to children, are potentially in conflict.

And under the Self-Governing Schools Etc (Scotland) Act 1989, the rights of parents to request placement of their children in schools outwith Scotland and even the United Kingdom seems to be in marked contrast with the more narrowly constrained "rights" in the 1980 Act.

Perhaps the time has come to focus our thinking on a new consolidated Education Act which would bring together a more coherent and systematic framework. Such an Act should take account of changed models of practice and reflect a more dynamic view of "special needs" and the support systems required to circumvent handicap. This might be a fitting way to mark Warnock's silver anniversary.

This article is based on part of George Thomson's inaugural lecture as Professor of Educational Psychology at Edinburgh University, entitled Educational Psychology - A Paradigm in Search of a Science? The views expressed are wholly those of the author.

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