Don't write off the record

28th July 2000 at 01:00
Ministers should not be in such a hurry to prejudge the issue of special treatment for special needs, says Robin Jackson.

THE news that the Deputy Minister for Children and Education has pronounced "the death sentence" on the record of needs warrants some comment. What is disturbing is that the minister should be rushing to make pronouncements of a prejudicial nature before the national advisory forum which is reviewing the recording process has come to a considered view on the matter.

Is there a case for abolishing the record? Tommy MacKay, a leading psychologist and one of the most persuasive advocates for abolition, has argued that there are significant legislative, educational, procedural and philosophical concerns to be addressed. First, he claims that it is based on parents' rather than children's rights; second, it reflects a static rather than a dynamic model of special needs; third, the process is cumbersome, time consuming and excessively formalistic; and fourth, it is divisive, confrontational and discriminatory.

The record of needs is divisive because it creates within the special needs population two groups - those with it and those without; it is confrontational because it increasingly relies on recourse to the law; and it is discriminatory because it singles out children with special needs as a separate legal category.

There are a number of points to make here. First, parents are entitled to feel worried if the record of needs is abolished as it has proved invaluable for them when discussing their child's progress with school staff or participating in reviews of their children's future needs or appealing against an education authority's decision.

Second, by Mr MacKay's own admission the philosophical thinking which underpinned the creation of the record was sound inasmuch as it emphasised the positive concept of needs rather than the negative and outdated notion of disability and deficit. Third, undue significance has been attached by Mr MacKay to the bureaucratic nature of the recording process. Operating any kind of recording system is necessarily bureaucratic - using that term in a technical and not pejorative sense. The real but undeclared issue here is the amount of work that is being required of educational psychologists.

What is not in dispute is that a disproportionate amount of an educational psychologist's time is spent in processing records of needs. What Mr MacKay does not mention is the consistent failure by successive governments to recognise the extent to which the role of the school psychological service has expanded in recent years or to fund it appropriately, with the result that it is chronically under-resourced.

The notion that drawing up a record consttutes a discriminatory act has also to be viewed with some caution. Is it seriously argued that every child is the same? Is no one special? We have to be sensible here. Equalisation of educational opportunity demands some form of differentiation.

While Mr MacKay accepts that one of the main reasons for introducing the record of needs was to protect the interests of children with special educational needs, he questions the efficacy of its safeguarding role. But if the record was abolished and more and more powers are devolved to headteachers and away from education authorities, what confidence can we have, given the market-place ethos currently prevailing, that adequate resources will be directed to meet the needs of those pupils who formerly would have had a record?

The provision of services for children and young people with special needs will soon be one of the few residual powers possessed by education authorities. If this, too, is removed authorities will no longer have an organisational raison d'etre. Abolishing education authorities or at least merging them with other local government departments would certainly achieve significant savings.

One very curious aspect of the possible discontinuance of the record of needs is the fact that south of the border there is no talk of abolishing the equivalent statements. On the contrary, statements are widely accepted and supported, as was evidenced in the positive feedback received by the Department for Education and Employment during its consultation on the Green Paper Excellence for all Children: Meeting Special Educational Needs.

In fact, earlier this month a draft revised SEN code of practice was issued along with draft SEN thresholds giving guidance in decision-making on the identification and provision for pupils. Has the Scottish Executive, I wonder, taken any evidence from south of the border?

Miscarriages of justice often occur when the jury is not presented with all the available evidence. It would be unfortunate for the reputation of the Scottish Executive if, in its anxiety to be seen to be doing something, "the death sentence" is pronounced on the record of needs, particularly if the decision is influenced to a significant extent by the testimony of witnesses drawn from a few high- profile lobby groups whose outright opposition to the special educational system is well known and documented. In the courtroom the evidence of prejudiced witnesses is invariably discounted.

And so it should be in the Parliament's committee rooms. Before arriving at a final verdict, the Executive should satisfy itself that it has listened to a representative body of opinion. Possibly even, dare one whisper it, informed opinion furth of Scotland.

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