Cast adrift in a sea of paperwork

25th March 2011 at 00:00

The special educational needs (SEN) system is to receive a thorough overhaul. Not before time, certainly. After all the hard work she put into her original report, Baroness Mary Warnock's hair must have turned an increasingly deep shade of grey as she watched SEN become a bureaucratic monster.

All schools have a special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco), but the role has changed considerably over the last decade. My Senco still manages to teach, because that is what she likes doing. She, along with her small team of part-time teachers, has remarkable success with children who need additional help. Her aim is to give intense, focused support in small group settings several times a week, so that the children can work and achieve more easily in their normal classes. The team works closely with parents, so that home support matches what is happening at school.

The system works well - but only because the paperwork is always a minor, secondary consideration. Working with the child is paramount, but it's rare to find a teaching Senco these days. If you allow the bureaucracy to take hold, you've had it, because you will spend all your time monitoring, tracking and filling in forms. Ofsted will demand to know how many sub-levels of improvement your children have made, and they will want charts and graphs to prove it. It's so easy to allow the child's real needs to slip through your fingers. The average Senco spends 85 per cent of his or her time on paperwork, and anyone who's filled in a statementing SA1 form will understand why.

There are so many levels and varieties of special needs these days. Children with autism, children with medical issues, children who are behind in basic subjects and need focused support, children with behavioural problems who, at worst, need a teaching assistant permanently allocated to them - the list is endless and expensive. But all these children have an entitlement to the best education we can offer.

I have no problem with that, and most parents are grateful when they realise the extent to which a school is trying to help their child, but I get very annoyed at the increasing number who are out to play the system.

Some years ago, one of our parents decided that her son warranted a statement of special needs. She maintained that he wasn't making adequate progress - that the teacher wasn't doing enough for him, that his health was suffering from worry about his work, and that one-to-one support was essential for him.

We didn't accept her case. The reason her son wasn't making progress was simple: he was rarely at school, and when he did come he was worn out from being allowed to do whatever he liked at home. The word "bedtime" wasn't in his vocabulary. The parent then managed to get financial help for a specialist to represent her and the school was taken to a tribunal. We could hardly believe what we were hearing when her case was presented. But the panel was impressed, she won her case, and the local authority had to fork out a large amount of money to service the statement.

I'm not optimistic about a SEN sea-change. We are told that in the future every child will have their cognitive development assessed by the age of two-and-a-half. Now where have I heard that sort of thing before? Oh yes: "Every child in primary school will be taught to swim"; "Every child will have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument".

Impressive headlines are easy. The follow-up isn't.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email:

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