Too much money and effort that should be devoted to children with special needs is being wasted on red tape and the increasingly confrontational relationship between parents and local authorities, according to the Labour party.
A policy document, Every Child is Special, published last week, said that increasing numbers of parents seeking statements of special educational need for their children, many of them prepared to take their case to the special needs tribunal, were eating up resources.
Labour would aim to ensure that problems are identified as early as possible and look at ways to resolve disputes before they reach the tribunal. The document suggests that the tribunal itself could set up a conciliation service. The building of "effective partnerships" between parents from the point where the child's problems came to light would help, as would better communication between agencies, such as education and social services.
The nine-point plan also says that if a local authority has agreed to fund a child in a suitable specialist private school, the authority will not be able to get the tribunal to send the child to a cheaper school without reference to the Secretary of State. This move, which was welcomed by the Independent Panel for Special Educational Advice, is intended to minimise disruption for the child.
Katy Simmons, co-ordinator for IPSEA, said: "If local authorities have not got suitable specialist provision of their own, they should continue to pay for the child to go to a specialist private school." There are too many cases, she said, of children with very specific special needs, such as autism, being dumped in catch-all schools for pupils with learning difficulties.
On behavioural problems, Labour recommends allowing schools to send children to pupil referral units for one term as "a half-way house" between fixed-term exclusion (up to 15 days) and permanent exclusion. Training teachers how to manage special needs is also a priority - Labour will "build on" the special needs requirements in the Teacher Training Agency's recently published national curriculum for teacher training.
The number of universities providing places for students with special needs is "unacceptably low", the document says, though it offers no concrete solution beyond "looking at ways of encouraging universities to co-operate with other providers". It does, however, commit the party to taking on board the recommendations of the Tomlinson report on the rights of students with special needs to have access to further education.