Ensuring all children are given life chances is the ethos behind exemplary work being carried out by a special needs team. Stephanie Northen reports
This summer Janet Newton is going to retire smiling, but not because she is relieved that her 38 years in education are over. The feeling is more of a job well done, although the head of Powers Hall infants' school in Witham, Essex, would not be so boastful. "I'm just one of those lucky people," she says, looking back over her 16 years in charge of the 300-pupil school that serves several large estates.
Janet began her career as a special needs teacher and the area has remained a particular interest. She is a supporter of the drive to include, where practicable, children with disabilities or psychological problems in the educational mainstream. "To call this an inclusive school is a bit silly," she says, "we always have been one, though we never noticed until they came up with the label."
Powers Hall has a 52-place nursery and two speech and language units.
Children can transfer to and from the units as their needs dictate, while the emphasis in the nursery is on early identification of any special needs. The importance of prompt diagnosis was reinforced last week when the Government announced a pound;25 million package to help under-fives with learning difficulties.
Over the years Janet has seen great progress in how children's problems are tackled. "The system has become 100 per cent more supportive than it was. Previously it was very ad hoc. Those heads who shouted the loudest got the most help. Now there is much less disparity.
"Everyone is also much more aware of the wide range of special needs. Before it was really only visual and hearing problems that were spotted. People didn't know much about autism, for example, and many children used to slip through the net."
She credits the local authority with much of this progress and is not alone in doing so. In February, the report on Essex, by the Office for Standards in Education, picked out the special needs service for praise.
The county has clearly managed to do some of the "joining up" that New Labour loves. Inspectors were impressed by the "effective co-ordination" of the "combined service" of educational psychologists, specialist teachers and behaviour support staff.
Or, as Janet puts it: "If I need someone to help me they are usually at the end of a phone line."
She praises the good relations they have established, and also values the half-termly visits from health visitors to brief her and her staff on families that may be in need of rescue.
In ultimate charge of the rescue team is Sue Kerfoot, head of Essex's special needs and psychology service. Like Janet, she believes in starting from the momen a child is born. "More children are surviving with multiple handicaps. We want to give them some life chances and help the parents. Many are very vulnerable in that first year. They don't believe there is a way forward."
The good teamwork and clarity of purpose that the inspectors found are central to her 10 years' work in Essex. "We want open, fair and clear policies that everyone understands."
Sue admits this can mean having to make hard decisions, often with regard to statementing children - a process which parents see as the way to secure vital help.
The aim is to keep the practice to a minimum, which is in line with its policies of inclusion and early identification of needs. Only 2.3 per cent of Essex pupils are statemented which, inspectors have said, is the result of efficiency, not of penny-pinching or of overlooking potential problems.
The same motives lie behind decisions to cut down on the use of out-of-county residential placements in Essex.
Clear criteria for statements have been laid down, which schools understand, says Sue. The desire is to keep this lifeline for pupils with really complex problems. "Some local authorities can end up with four per cent of their children failing and then spending all their money picking up the pieces. It is a misuse of the system, which means that there is less money for everyone else."
If a child does need a statement Essex moves fast. It is probably in the top 10 per cent of local authorities in this respect with the process taking no more than 26 weeks. A partnership scheme aims to keep families involved - another service praised by Ofsted, which said "increasing parents' confidence was rightly seen as a crucial part of the strategy".
Inspectors also commented on the "pioneering" work the county is doing to cope with the shortage of educational psychologists. Its "assistant" educational psychology scheme was set up four years ago and recruits people waiting for a place on a national training course. All candidates have a psychology degree, teaching qualification and two years' teaching experience. After working in Essex, they also usually have a place on the training course.
The scheme is demanding for the county in terms of training and support, but the rewards are considerable, mainly because many of the assistants return to Essex once they are qualified.
Sue supports the Government's standard-raising agenda, with some caveats. Concentrating on boosting the achievement level of 80 per cent of children is fair enough, but "effective schools are effective for all their children".
"We need a culture that accepts responsibility for moving all children forward," she says. It is a belief that has kept Janet Newton, and the inspectors, smiling.