Lift the lid on the special box

9th February 1996 at 00:00
The pressure valve that is the special educational needs tribunal is in danger of being overwhelmed. So the spotlight thrown on it this week by the Commons select committee on education is timely (page 2). The tribunal was set up to get ministers off the hook as dissatisfaction grew with the way local authorities were meeting the expectations of parents of children with learning difficulties. It was always likely, then, that the independent appeals procedure would find itself at the centre of a storm.

Parental aspirations, anxiety and acute frustration at what they see as insensitive bureaucracy increasingly makes people fiercely adversarial on their children's behalf, whatever the new code of practice says about partnership. Education authorities meanwhile have been encouraged by the Audit Commission to build some degree of order and fairness into the rationing of cash-limited budgets for special provision. Aware that the greatest needs do not always have the loudest advocates, some have attempted to identify criteria upon which to base funding decisions that are fencible if not sensible.

But children - at least in the eyes of their parents - do not always fit into neat objective categories. Needs which may seem comparatively clear-cut and modest to a dispassionate administrator applying a normative scale can appear absolute, multi-faceted and gut-wrenchingly worrying when it is your own child's future at stake. Are parents not, after all, being encouraged to raise their expectations?

There is no real limit to the special help any child might benefit from. And when children with special needs are looked at as individual cases - as the tribunal, in fairness, is bound to do - it is often not difficult to establish that any need has complex causes and repercussions that could amount to a learning difficulty greater than most children of that age.

So a small but growing army of parents, aided and abetted by decisions of the tribunal, is steadily securing a larger and larger slice of the fixed education cake. There is often little benefit in this, however, since much of the extra money is wasted on the administration of statutory procedures or on additional specialist teaching which in reality exists only on paper in the statement because little or nothing is being invested in what is the really urgent task; developing the teaching skills of those who are expected to tackle these needs.

The tribunal may have become the forum for discontent. But it is the failure to invest in the smaller classes and clearer professional insights which could have headed off many needs and anxieties at an earlier stage which is the cause of it. Little wonder, then, that this week's Primary Update reports that catering for special needs has become the largest source of stress for primary teachers.

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