How we will pay for special needs

10th February 1995 at 00:00
Special needs look like being the running story of 1995. For the second year in succession, the runaway overspend on statemented children by our local authority has to be clawed back out of the general schools' budget. Expenditure on statemented pupils in mainstream schools has more than doubled in three years.

The absolute commitment that the needs identified in a statement must be met and funded by the local education authority is well established, though those of us who have been involved in attempting to extract statements for children in our schools suspect that speed of assessment has not exactly been a priority. More than 1,000 children are currently awaiting statements.

The problem is, that the 3,000-plus children with statements in our county are probably now the only pupils who have a cast iron guarantee that their educational needs will be met. The others face the prospect of increasing class sizes and diminishing resources.

So why are so many more children being statemented? Could it be because the special needs advisory service and literacy support team have been privatised?

Children's needs might previously have been met by the class teacher with some expert support and loaned materials. Now the only way schools can get any extra help without spending their own budget is by getting children statemented.

The new code of practice, clearly intended to slow down the process by cluttering current good practice with forms, reports and meetings may in the end be counter-productive. If we have to go to all that trouble, we expect the bonus of a few hours statemented time as an eventual outcome.

Schools are beginning to look askance at each other, suspicious that some heads are more adept at working the system than others and that the criteria for statementing are not consistently applied. And, of course, we all end up paying for special needs in the form of further budget cuts.

Our LEA is currently looking at the idea of banding for special needs pupils. Instead of specifically identifying and funding individual needs, children will be assessed as being in one of 10 bands of special need, each of which will be allocated a standard amount of money.

Schools will then be given an aggregated sum of money for all their special needs pupils, to spend on staff and resources at their discretion. Groups and families of schools could also pool their special needs money to provide a service across the primary and secondary divide.

There has been some opposition to this system on the grounds that the principle of providing specifically for the special needs of individual children has been lost.

My own reservations about these proposals are based on an instinctive suspicion that the hidden agenda is the need to save money. But it is just possible that this can be done without selling the children short if schools can save on duplication of resources.

In a small way, we are taking steps towards a system like this in our own village. The three primary schools made a joint application to a local charity for funding for special needs resources.

We hope that sharing resources will lead to the pooling of expertise, joint or complementary training courses and a better service for the children.

When the chairman of the trustees contacted me with the good news that we had been granted Pounds 5,000 between us, I phoned the headteacher of my school immediately.

One of the other teachers answered the phone, and I heard her summon our head with the revealing phrase: "No rest for the wicked, it's Joan on the phone again!" It's good to talk.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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