Dalton's Diary : The betrayal of special needs

28th March 1997 at 00:00
Schools in this county are only too aware of two apparently irreconcilable facts. First, that the special educational needs budget is running away with huge amounts of local authority resources to the detriment of schools' budgets, and second, that it is almost impossible to get a statement of special needs for a child in school who desperately needs help.

The big concern for parents is the quality of the help available even if a statement is forthcoming, especially when the difficulties are behavioural. Ancillary hours are usually all that is on offer, and the person appointed may well be untrained and unqualified.

One hears horror stories of special needs hours being used as patronage by headteachers, handed out to PTA stalwarts or the wife of the chair of governors. The implication is that the hours are for the benefit of the school rather than the child; the ancillary's function is to keep the statemented child out of the teacher's hair and allow the rest of the class to get on in peace. The fact that last year nearly three-quarters of excluded primary children in this authority were statemented shows that their special needs are not being addressed properly.

Quality of ancillary support is not a problem in my school. We have been fortunate in having dedicated and gifted ancillaries for our special needs children. Hanging on to them is the tricky part. We know from experience how difficult it can be to get a statement for a child with behavioural or learning difficulties but without a clear diagnosis. However, we did think that we were on firmer ground with a Down's syndrome child.

He started school as a rising five a year ago, with a statement already in place providing him with full-time ancillary help. Term by term, the hours allowed are being cut, despite our protests. He is settling extremely well in the school, but needs constant supervision, regular toileting and the stimulation of working one-to-one with an adult. In an open-plan school like ours, with easy access from the playground to the street, at the most basic level he needs watching every moment.

The special needs service tells us that we should be prepared to meet some of the costs of supporting this boy out of our school's budget. As governors, we do allocate funds for special needs, but we had always assumed that these were to cover the cost of supporting children who did not warrant statementing. Against our better judgment, we have allocated extra money to provide lunchtime supervision - not to have done so would have put him at risk. But the budget is now fully stretched. Another cut in hours, threatened for next half term, will mean that we cannot guarantee the child's safety and we may have to restrict his attendance at school.

What is really distressing is that we all - parents, teachers and governors - are convinced that decisions about this child's future are being made on financial not educational grounds. How can we continue to accept statemented children into school when we know how swiftly and ruthlessly the financial rug can be pulled from under our feet? How can we go on attracting high-quality ancillary staff if we cannot offer them any job security, training or status?

Integration into mainstream schooling was promoted as being socially and educationally better for the children concerned, as well as being much less expensive than paying for places in special schools. Without proper funding and trained, experienced, well-supported staff to implement it in schools, it is beginning to assume the same hollow ring as "care in the community".

Joan Dalton is a governor in the east Midlands

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