Cash for vulnerable pupils goes to schools

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Gradual revolution in funding has led to one-third fewer statements but it means teachers can intervene earlier to offer support

A SPECIAL educational needs revolution is shifting responsibility for England's most vulnerable pupils directly on to schools and dramatically cutting parents' chances of gaining a statement for their child. Councils have moved the money they held centrally to school budgets, leading to a 37 per cent drop in the numbers of new statements issued in the past decade.

The shift is welcomed in principle by schools because it allows them to intervene at an earlier stage and it cuts down on bureaucracy. But it has been achieved piecemeal without legislation or national public consultation and debate.

The different way the money has been distributed means that some schools say they are left with insufficient funds. The closure of 146 special schools since 1997 means that mainstream schools are taking in more children with special needs.

And it has left many parents bewildered, fearing that their children will fall through the gaps without the statements that legally entitle them to a specified level of support.

A survey of 37 councils by the TES indicates that of the 92 per cent delegating funds, 82 per cent are distributing them using proxy indicators such as free school meal and prior attainment levels, rather than auditing pupils actual needs.

Jess Stansfield, a special educational needs co-ordinator at a primary in Southwark, south London. said her school made the funding switch in April and was told it would eventually lose more than pound;50,000 a year.

This week she told the Professional Association of Teachers conference in Harrogate: "A school could have high numbers of children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, haemiplegia, cerebral palsy, autism, global delay, visual or hearing impairment and be funded nothing for their specific support."

Southwark says a majority of its schools get more money. Audits, it says, are "overly bureaucratic".

Roger Inman, chief executive of the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (Ipsea), a charity, said: "It is not the process I disagree with, it is the speed of change. Some schools have not got enough capacity and expertise to run the system by themselves yet. "

Cambridgeshire has delegated money for statemented pupils to school budgets using free meals and prior attainment to decide where the funding should be allocated.

Tony Heath, director of inclusion at Hinchingbrooke school at Huntingdon, said: "It means you can get away from the paperchase of statements and respond to the needs of your pupils in the classroom."

But as chair of a special needs group representing more than 20 local schools, he believes the new system is far from perfect.

"It presupposes those who need extra help and support are all poor pupils with low prior performance. If a pupil with high-functioning Asperger's from a middle-class home comes, there is no funding whatsoever," he said.

Gordon Jeyes, Cambridgeshire children's services director, said the distribution had been successful so far, but the authority would be reviewing the formula.

The reduction in statements is also caused by dubious practices by some councils, Ipsea alleges. They publish "illegitimate" criteria that set the bar for triggering an assessment of a pupil's needs too high. That acts as a disincentive to parents unaware they can challenge a refusal at a tribunal. The charity says some authorities say they have no money to pay for provision set out in statements, even though it remains their legal responsibility.

A Department for Children Schools and Families spokeswoman said delegation of funding allowed schools to make early decisions about the support needed for pupils. "Schools are expected to use the whole of their resources to ensure that the needs of all pupils are met," she said.

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