The media keep getting it wrong over Warnock

7th November 1997 at 00:00
I am increasingly fed up with the way in which the media, popular, posh and professional, continue to contribute to the mystification of special education generally and, in particular, the status of the 1981 Education Act. In your recent treatment of this topic, you assert that the 1981 Act is "based on Warnock" - the report, that is, of 1978. But it's an assertion which is one of those "big lies" so beloved of propagandists.

First, the Act's principal innovation - statementing - has nothing whatsoever to do with the report. The Warnock Committee was explicitly concerned to maintain the then established SE procedure - albeit with one modification: replacing the term "educational subnormality" with "learning difficulty".

Second, the report was concerned with those children experiencing scholastic difficulties which resided outside the 2 per cent attending special schools. As Baroness Warnock stated in a TES article, published when the Act came into force, her committee was concerned not with the where but with the how of special education. More specifically, she stressed that her committee was not concerned with dismantling the organisation of special schools.

What she failed to note is that if something like 18 per cent of the child population experience scholastic difficulties then this indicated that there is something wrong with the school system as a whole. Not surprisingly the Department for Education failed to grasp this nettle. Nor did the department have to wait for the report to be aware of such difficulties. For by the mid-1980s it was clear that the category for educational subnormality was running away with resources. The creation of new places failed to keep pace with the children identified as ESN, a category for which there was no "natural" limit in that its identification was scholastic and not medical.

Hence, I argue that the impetus to draft the 1981 Act came not from the Warnock Report but from the bureaucratic need to protect the established working of the educational system. Part of that protection is wholly to obscure the specifics of special educational needs. In which regard the department procedure again runs counter to the recommendations of the Warnock report that a central record detailing the specifics of those needs - a record the department has not even tried to keep.

JOHN LINSIE 33 Grasmere Avenue Coventry

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