End the confusion over special needs

28th July 2006 at 01:00
The Commons select committee report on special educational needs, published earlier this month, concludes that current provision is confusing. Every classroom teacher in the land will agree wholeheartedly with that.

Those of us who have had time to read the report have eagerly skipped to the section on future proposals to read what we can expect to have done about it. There we find a strategy with a catchy title: "Pupil-centred provision: a national delivery model".

There are seven key requirements with equally punchy "Let's all rally round" headings such as "a national framework linked to minimum standards"; "local flexibility within a national framework"; and "equipping the workforce".

It is an interesting wishlist, with not much anyone could disagree with.

But even if everything were carried out to the letter, I'm sure another select committee would meet in 10 years' time and still find SEN provision confusing.

My question is, what's in it for teachers? Unacceptable pupil behaviour is the number one reason for teachers leaving the profession. Often the cause is a pupil with a special need the teacher has neither the time, expertise nor resources to meet. When faced with a child that kicks, punches, bites or spits at another child and then turns round and does the same to you, it is not acceptable to be told "that's just part of the job". It is equally unacceptable for the child to have to endure a long process of assessment before it can get expert help. The system needs to trust teachers' assessment of a special need and must respond quickly. What applies to an emotionalbehavioural disorder also applies to difficulties learning to read: if the teacher says the need exists, it should be met - and quickly, not after some "code of practice" has been completed.

Before local management of schools arrived, many primaries had a supernumerary teacher who withdrew pupils struggling in some aspect of their learning to give them support in small groups or even individually.

These included pupils with needs severe enough to merit a statement today, but also those who just needed a little extra help, in the opinion of the class teacher. It is particularly upsetting that such teachers have all but disappeared because of the cash implications of class-size limits.

Secondary schools used to have special needs departments with a head of department and several trained special needs teachers. Bring back such departments and improve their status to at least equal to their counterparts!

What impact the report will make remains to be seen. Whether it applies to Wales at all depends on the Assembly government, as these are devolved matters. It is interesting to note that my colleagues who teach in England complain that politicians and others at the Department for Education and Skills refuse to accept that SEN is anything to do with deprivation. The way the Assembly government allocated the extra money from Gordon Brown's Budget according to a deprivation index, however, does suggest that they might be prepared to accept what commonsense and teachers seem to tell us.

The report does not settle the inclusion versus special schools debate and in fairness never attempts to do so. But it does make clear that neither is a cheap option and its preferred mixture of both is particularly expensive.

We are probably where we are with SEN provision because over the years those making key decisions have had to work with inadequate budgets and have had to compromise because of lack of funds. This is true at every level, from individual schools to LEAs to national governments.

The report does not suggest how the strategy should be funded, but its publication is timely. It comes as the Audit Commission is warning about surplus pupil places because of falling school rolls.

We should see this as an opportunity, not a threat. If the commission tells us we have 20 per cent surplus places, we should think "great, there's the accommodation sorted out - all we need to do now is train a specialist SEN teacher to go in each 'spare' classroom".

Brian Hughes is a science teacher and works in Torfaen

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