Josephine Gardiner surveys the Green Paper on special needs and talks to its architect, schools minister Estelle Morris.
The Government's Green Paper on special educational needs, published this week, attempts to pick a way through a hornet's nest of competing interests and contrary viewpoints by marrying pragmatism with principle.
The principle underpinning the proposals is inclusion - the idea that every child, however severely disabled, is entitled to the best education, and to be educated alongside other children in mainstream schools wherever possible. Parents of disabled children, the paper also stresses, should not be expected to have their already formidable anxieties exacerbated by agonising waits and battles with bureaucracy before their children's needs are identified and met.
At the same time the paper addresses the need to curb the spiralling cost of SEN provision (currently Pounds 2.5 billion a year), the ever-increasing number of children with statements and parents seeking them, and the growing number of disputes between parents and local education authorities being brought to the Special Needs Tribunal. The Government argues that by identifying children's special needs much earlier, refining the identification process (the code of practice), improving provision for non-statemented children and getting special schools to share expertise, money can be used more effectively.
In other words, the thinking goes, if a child showing "challenging" behaviour at five is helped promptly, he or she is less likely to end up as a permanently excluded, alienated, and very expensive juvenile crime statistic at 15. At present, too much money is being wasted on the processes at the expense of the pupils' needs. The Government wants all the plans in place before the end of this Parliament in 2002.
The Green Paper is billed as the most comprehensive overhaul of special needs since the Warnock Report almost 20 years ago. This gives a slightly misleading impression of the proposals, which adjust rather than revolutionise the current arrangements. The statementing system, the code of practice and the tribunal system should remain, it says, but are in need of refinement.
In cutting the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in the five-stage code of practice, and improving the quality of help provided at the earlier, school-based stages, the Government hopes that parents will feel less need to push for statements for their children and that money will be freed up to help those with SEN but without statements. Far more children now have statements than were envisaged by the Warnock Report (233,000 pupils or 3 per cent, compared with the 2 per cent projected by the report), and numbers of pupils with statements have almost doubled in mainstream schools since 1991. One option proposed is to use outside expertise to beef up the Individual Education Plan which the school has to provide for each child with SEN. "The aim for most children with SEN should be to move back down the stages of the code once intervention has successfully begun to address the child's difficulties, " it says.
Similarly, the Government wants to get away from the idea that once a statement is made, the child will necessarily need it forever, and that a child placed in a special school will never return to the mainstream.
It is hoped that disputes betwen parents and LEAs can be defused before they get to the tribunal stage. Parents are to get the support of a knowledgeable "named person" when they need it most - at the start of the statementing process, rather than, as at present, after the statement has been issued.
Proposals for expanding the inclusion of special needs pupils in mainstream education form perhaps the most radical and potentially controversial part of the Green Paper. The role of special schools is to be redefined so that they work in tandem with mainstream schools, with pupils moving in and out of special provision where appropriate.
Estelle Morris, the education junior minister, wants them to be seen as "specialist" schools, specialising in SEN just as other schools specialise in arts or technology, rather than as repositories of disability. Expertise is concentrated in special schools, so staff there should be able to share it with mainstream colleagues. The paper includes a proposal to change the law so that LEAs are obliged to provide a mainstream place for all pupils with special needs if their parents want it - reflecting concern over recent cases in which pupils with Down's syndrome have been forced to move from a mainstream primary to a special secondary.
The money available under the Schools Access Initiative - which provides capital grants to help schools adapt buildings for disabled access - is to be increased from Pounds 4 million a year to "at least" Pounds 8m. Grants for training staff in mainstream schools and a new qualification for learning support assistants are also mooted.
While the paper is careful to stress that the Government's approach to inclusive education "will be practical, not dogmatic" (meaning that there is no question of phasing out special schools), and fits neatly with broader policies on social inclusion, it is likely to provoke rumblings from the teaching unions on the one hand, while the inclusive education lobby may say that it does not go far enough.
GREEN PAPER IN BRIEF
Watchword: Inclusion New Labour watchword: Partnership Closer co-operation of special and mainstream schools.
Earlier assessment of SEN: more SEN children to stay in mainstream.
Better support for parents.
Revised code of practice - less bureaucracy, more support for schools, fewer statements, fewer appeals.
Extra Pounds 4 million for physical access in schools.
SEN training for all new teachers, clearer career path for SEN staff.
More training on emotional behavioural difficulties, especially for primary teachers; extra support for EBD schools.
Closer links between education, health and social services; more speech and language therapy.