Fresh designs on support

14th March 2003 at 00:00
A draft Bill to reform provision for children who require additional educational support is still being discussed but is already proving controversial, Raymond Ross reports.

The Scottish Executive's drive to reform provision for pupils with special educational needs is causing anxiety among some parents and while it is generally welcomed by specialists and agencies working with children with specific needs, they too express concerns about the Bill.

The draft Additional Support for Learning Bill introduces "a new duty on education authorities to identify and address additional support needs of pupils and therefore goes much wider than the current SEN framework," the Scottish Executive says.

"Additional support needs in this context means needs for support that are additional to those which other children normally receive, in order to help a child benefit from education and so make the educational progress which is expected of himher."

Currently education authorities are obliged to provide a Record of Needs for any pupil with specific difficulties who is deemed to need support from specialists. It is essentially a strategic document giving a summarised assessment of the child's specific difficulties, the nature of specific needs and what the education department will do to address them.

The draft Bill proposes to scrap the Record of Needs and replace it with a co-ordinated support plan, which is expected to resemble an individual education plan with targets that will be reviewed regularly. Some professionals regard it as potentially more helpful and less bureaucratic and time-consuming, with the result that a larger percentage of children could fall under its umbrella, such as pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, traveller children or those with extra language needs.

A perceived lack of consultation with parents, however, has led to alarm that children will no longer be guaranteed the same support. The Record of Needs Alert group has been set up by the Independent Special Education Advice service, which argues that, with consultation on the Bill closing on March 28, the Scottish Executive has not made enough effort to confer with parents.

Julie Allan, professor of education at Stirling University, is generally positive about the draft Bill but sympathises with parents.

"One of my gravest concerns is about the extent of consultation with parents. It has not been as wide as it should have been. Parents have just not been hearing about it," she says.

RONA's main objection is the proposed scrapping of Records of Needs. "We would rather reform the Record of Needs system than do away with it," says Lorraine Dilworth, director of ISEA. "It is only failing because the Scottish Executive didn't police it and they let local authorities get away with not running it properly."

RONA believes one of the main problems with the proposed co-ordinated support plans is that pupils who now have a Record of Needs might not qualify for one.

Paragraph 50 of the Consultation on the Bill states: "CSPs will be for those children who face complex or multiple barriers to learning which significantly, and adversely, affect (or could reasonably be expected to affect) their educational development over the long term; and who require frequent access to a diversity of services outwith services from the school and education authority. These external services could be therapy services provided by NHS or respite care from social work services, for example."

Professor Allan also is unconvinced that this proposal "fully" replaces the Record of Needs.

"There are problems with definitions," she says. "The definition of additional support needs, which replaces the term special educational needs, is opaque and unhelpful, as is the definition of co-ordinated support plans and who gets them.

"It seems children won't get one if their additional support needs can be met within the school. That worries me because I'm not sure how these decisions will be made."

Eddie Follan, the policy officer for Children in Scotland, which was involved in the Bill's initial consultation process, also is concerned. "We have to ensure that if the CSP replaces the Record of Needs, which was not working particularly well, all children who need that level of support will get it," he says.

"The tests for CSP seem very high. You only get a CSP if you are receiving support from outwith education. In our consultations so far, both parents and teachers have been expressing concerns that all children will be catered for.

"There is no guidance at the moment on how the CSP will work in detail. If it emerges that there are fewer children with a CSP than presently have a Record of Needs, the question will be: what support will be written in for them? There must be something solid written in here and I think there are provisions in the Bill to allow for this," he says.

Gwynedd Lloyd, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh school of education, believes all children will be catered for under the new system.

"The Bill makes additional support provision clearer and more relevant to current practice than the Record of Needs system, which was, laterally, a muddle," he says.

"Some people are worried about children with severe disabilities who might not qualify for a CSP but these children are already catered for and there is no evidence to suggest they will not continue to be supported.

"I think the CSP system does place a legal duty on schools and local authorities to support all children with special needs."

RONA disagrees and believes the Bill would remove an authority's duty to identify, observe and assess specific or complex special educational needs and the definitions could allow a get-out clause.

Certainly, the vague definitions coupled with fiscal stringencies are worrying others.

Kate Higgins, policy and parliamentary affairs manager for Capability Scotland, the disability organisation, says: "Extending the definition of additional support to a much broader group of young people is welcome but, without additional resources, there is a risk that provision will be rationed because local authorities' budgets are cash limited and not needs-led.

"If a child with very complex needs requires expensive support, it is not difficult to see the possibility of that support not being met, particularly when the legislation allows for it. It is simply not acceptable for the new legislation to give local authorities a statutory opt-out of meeting support needs where it is 'not practicable at reasonable cost'.

"Potentially, many families who have struggled to secure provision and support under the Record of Needs system could be no better off with a CSP," she says.

Mr Follan says: "There are concerns as to what 'reasonable cost' may mean.

We certainly don't want this to be a get-out-of-jail card for education authorities to say they don't have the money."

The integration of services implied by the Bill is also an issue, he says.

"We will have to make sure that assessments are fully integrated between education and other services, especially as the Bill is education focused.

"There is a lot of good practice but more work needs to be done to consolidate and develop an integrated support needs service."

He concludes: "We are sympathetic to the idea of additional support being inclusive, catering for low-level, short-term support to high-level, long-term support and we are hopeful that the Bill addresses this effectively."

"There's lots to welcome in this Bill," says Professor Allan, "such as the emphasis on transition, on life after school, on the concern it shows for parents being better represented in the system and giving them supporters at different stages in the process and in the recognition that the voice of the child counts.

"This is better than the Record of Needs system which resulted in a geographical lottery."

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