Admirable aims, but it's pie in the sky

20th February 2004 at 00:00
The Support for Learning Bill will not be backed by the resources that are needed, says Judith Moore

The Additional Support for Learning Bill is packed with good intentions.

Attempting to look at each child holistically and to remove divisive barriers between those needing some additional support and those with complex needs, it widens the definition of "requiring additional support" while attempting to strengthen the duty on education authorities to address the individual needs of each child and to lessen the potential for conflict with parents. It plans to ease the burden of assessment on educational psychologists and is intended to replace the record of needs with a more workable system.

With such admirable aims, is it churlish of me to look for logic and practicality as well? Regrettably, the effect of this Bill when it becomes law will be the opposite of its stated aims. It will increase conflict between parent and authority, lead to division between parent and parent, further overstretch support for learning departments which are already at breaking point, increase the burden of assessment on psychologists and, above all, it will not work. Why? Because there is a logical flaw in the basic thinking.

First, it is a cruel deception that funding will be available to meet all children's additional support needs. Funds are limited. Who decides, and on what criteria, which of the hugely increased numbers of eligible children will receive support?

Since all parents will now have the right to a formal psychological, health or educational assessment, and given that a diagnosis of additional support needs can lead to significant benefits, I foresee a mushrooming of demand for psychological assessment which will dwarf the demands previously made on educational psychologists in the recording process.

Does a health assessment mean contact with a child psychiatrist to decide whether a child has ADHD, Tourette's syndrome, or mild Asperger's? Waiting lists can already be six months or more. There are not enough speech and language or occupational therapists, physiotherapists or social workers to meet current needs. How can additional demand be coped with? It is unfair to set up expectations that cannot be met.

In addition, authorities now have a duty to take cognisance of any assessment presented by the parent. While the intention is admirable, the result will be an explosion in the sometimes doubtful industry of private diagnosis of additional support needs. In truth, given the wide-ranging scope of those needs, it would take a strong-minded psychologist indeed to fail to identify some relevant factor.

Previously, only children with a record of needs were eligible to have placing requests made on their behalf. Under the terms of this Bill, the parent of any pupil having additional support needs, however mild, has the right to make placing requests to the authority to fund education at independent schools even outwith the country. This means that there will be a hugely increased number of parents who may be in conflict with the authority over a rejected request.

While the parents of pupils with complex needs who have been unsuccessful in their request for a co-ordinated support plan (CSP), or who have been successful but are dissatisfied with some aspect of the process, have the right of appeal to the independent additional support needs tribunals, this right is not extended to parents of children who have needs that do not require support from outwith the school.

Those parents, however, can gain the right of access to the tribunal by requesting a co-ordinated support plan which the authority will presumably refuse. This, then, would give them the grounds. The potential is here for a large number of possibly unjustified requests for a support plan, each of which would need to be investigated and assessed, with the consequent burden on those who will make the decisions. I suspect this will be yet more work for the educational psychologists, lessening even further any opportunity they may have to work in a therapeutic way with pupils.

Matters become further confused as, to compensate for having no official access to the tribunal, parents of children with additional support needs may apply for dispute resolution. This procedure, for which no details currently exist, will run in parallel with the mediation service all authorities must provide. While mediation is an excellent idea, the mediator will be a person appointed by the authorities and their future career prospects may possibly depend to some measure on bringing about resolutions satisfactory to them. This is not a procedure designed to inspire confidence.

The authorities must also assess children from independent schools who may have additional support needs or require a co-ordinated support plan. They must do this in response to a request from either the managers of the school or from the parents of the pupil. Other than through the use of the overburdened educational psychologists, I am not clear how this is to be done - an assessment by one of the overstretched principal teachers of support for learning in the state secondary?

It is not yet clear who is to be the person responsible for the creation of the support plan. The plan contains the factors giving rise to the difficulty (I await with interest the response of parents to "substance abuse by parents" or "child living in a violent environment") as well as the educational objectives, the additional support required, the persons or agencies responsible for giving that support and the allocated school. Will educational psychologists find this less time-consuming than the record of needs?

Finally, among the many unresolved difficulties of this well-meaning Bill, a short phrase on page two may render much of the anticipation worthless:

"Subsection (1) (b) does not require an education authority to do anything which - (a) they do not otherwise have the power to do (b) is not practicable at reasonable cost." So who defines reasonable?

Judith Moore is principal teacher support for learning at Perth Grammar.

She writes in a personal capacity.

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