Ditch the statements

15th April 2005 at 01:00
All pupils with special needs should be given a fair share of available resources, writes Terry Mackie

Imagine you were part of some 20-year-old residential development. It is looking tired but not in bad overall condition. One day you read that one of its prize-winning architects says she considers it is a disaster, it should be knocked down - oh, and she is very sorry. Independent valuers say it offers little value for money. They think a new start might be best.

Then the building inspectors arrive, shaking their heads at the whole construction. Your local estate agents hate their jobs. Most of your neighbours prefer not to dwell on negative equity nightmares but they keep grumbling all the same. Nothing adds up.

It is not that lots of money has not been poured into maintenance and upkeep, it just seems that more every year is not enough. The only people who are happy are the three in 100 who seem to have cut a special deal for the protection and extension of their property. Overall, you feel anxious and start praying for change.

That "development" is where we are in Wales and England with special educational needs and inclusion. The architect is Baroness Warnock, now disowning her grand SEN design, and the valuers are the Audit Commission which launched a devastating SEN critique three years ago.

Inspection agencies Estyn and the Office for Standards in Education have made their systemic doubts very clear. The hapless estate agents are the SEN officers of the local education authorities (saints and martyrs to duty). The lucky 3 per cent are those who have children with statements of SEN. Only the latter believe that an unreconstructed SEN system can survive.

About 10 per cent of all council spend is on SEN. Wales and England's joint annual spend on SEN is more than pound;4 billion. Since 1997 that bill has rocketed compared to all other budget heads. Special needs represents just below 20 per cent of total "school" spend, if we include money for truancy and disaffection.

Given that one in five pupils experiences special needs, what is the problem? The problem is that about 70p of every SEN pound is for those with statements. So let us make this crystal clear: more than eight SEN children out of 10 have to do with less than a third of the total SEN resources available.

Confused? You would be if your SEN pupil did not have a statement. Line up 100 such pupils: 15 would have a great deal and 85 would have a raw deal.

Teachers have been trying for 20 years to build school inclusion, better support and a differentiated curriculum on this unfeasibly sloppy foundation. Sand and water, but no cement.

School inclusion is a big issue, for demographic and financial reasons.

Ironically, it is not going to be an issue in this election dominated by public services. Both the Labour and Conservative parties bring the matter down to eliminating bad behaviour and extending parental choice, including over special schools. Labour brags about investment in schools and the Tories bang on about more discipline and value for money.

Inclusion is now literally unmentionable. The Conservatives will put a moratorium on the closure of special schools while Labour will audit them to get more information "to plan local needs".

Eight years is a long time to decide on an audit. Inclusion is a non-issue for the big players. They have agreed to the non-debate. The first casualty of political war is usually the unvarnished truth.

The Liberal Democrats have a detailed set of views on SEN and inclusion (they use the actual term). They are strong on more mainstreaming but have nothing to say about statements, nor accountability or value for money.

Plaid Cymru plays Cassandra, saying little except that SEN is heading for a cash crisis. The Greens pledge to make mainstream buildings and curriculum more accessible, but they are so deep into philosophising they probably do not twig that statements are organic to the whole system. Unfortunately.

Is there any hope? Yes, but not for England. It seems to be in institutionalised denial about inclusion, attempting to square its circles by an odd mixture of concentric pressure and repetitive support.

For us in Wales we can exploit our devolved togetherness and have a real opportunity to learn quickly from our braveheart Scottish cousins. They have conducted a two-year national debate on their SEN system and are introducing system-wide reform through the implementation of their Education (Additional Support for Learning) Act.

Its main developments are to abolish their equivalent of statements and widen the support and funding base from "special educational needs" to "additional support needs".

Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning, should make an urgent trip to Edinburgh. Inclusion is an achievable dream once you get rid of statements.

Terry Mackie is an independent education consultant working in Wales and England

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