The Green Paper is pressing the right buttons, says Gary Thomas, but are the buttons wired up?
The Green Paper certainly presses the right buttons. All the keywords are there: inclusion, multi-agency, early intervention. But are the buttons wired up? Will lights flash when they are pressed? Or will we have the stasis which followed the last non-revolution, the Warnock report?
The early intervention button is continually pressed, but I wonder whether this one is wired up - either to research evidence or funding. It has become a shibboleth of educators that early intervention must be important. It's strange that this shibboleth should be as solid as it is, since it rests in little more than some nutty Freudian ideas about babies, bosoms and bottoms and the Jesuits' dictum about "Give me a child until he is seven . . .".
Unfortunately, the empirical evidence - from major American early intervention projects like Headstart and Follow-Through, to research on early deprivation - is far more equivocal. The evidence seems to say that early intervention can be successful if massive resources are invested and if positive discrimination is maintained. But it's no use just sprinkling some early intervention like holy water on the heads of our infants. It'll evaporate on the first day of the summer holidays. Here in the Green Paper "early intervention" rests largely in better identification, better multi-agency co-operation and better early primary education, particularly in literacy. Is this enough? No, but it's a start.
But there are some really good bits to the Green Paper where the wiring certainly is in place. There's an insistent pressing-home of the inclusion theme and there are promises to get extremely unpleasant with local authorities and schools which don't get their fingers out on this front. And there are many good practical ideas on how inclusion might be stimulated.
There is, for instance, the suggestion that special schools should have targets for numbers of children whom they successfully reintegrate. There's the suggestion that mainstream schools which reach high standards in improving their provision for a wide range of special needs be awarded a "kite mark". (How about including a cash reward with the kite mark?) There's the obvious idea (unfortunately rare to find in practice in the 20 years since Warnock) that special schools should become more like services, providing resources and expertise to local mainstream schools. And the single best idea mooted in the whole 99 pages is that all children should be registered on the roll of a mainstream school. This, if the money for the child also went to the mainstream school, would encourage creative thinking about inclusive solutions. What, for instance, might a mainstream school do with the Pounds 50,000 per annum (or more in many cases) which is currently paid to some independent residential schools for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties for each child they accommodate?
Statementing occupies six pages. Statementing is a worry for the managers of the education system because it costs a lot and has been on the increase in recent years. This shouldn't be altogether surprising since statements are seen as the royal road to more money. Parents and schools should therefore press for them.
There are lots of ideas here for bringing the statemented population down to 2 per cent of the total population, including more of a focus on outcomes in the statement so that when the outcomes have been achieved the child can "move to support at stage 3 of the Code" (page 41). Note the nicely Orwellian "move to" instead of the more obvious "move down to" which is certainly how it will be perceived by parents and schools - a game of snakes and ladders in which resources are given on one throw of the dice, only to be taken away at the next.
No one's going to give up more resources without a fight. But the problem is surely not the number of children with statements: it's the way that the overall pot is divided. At the moment, at one-seventh of the schools budget, the pot is substantial. But LEAs are having to spread existing moneys over unfilled places at special schools (due to "place-led" funding - a system devised by accountants) as well as funding places for children with statements at mainstream schools.
The jam is having to be spread too thinly because of accounting systems which promote a special school system and discourage inclusion. Tinkering with statementing won't do any good; it's like changing the shape of the lever on the side of the machine. The whole funding machine needs to be redesigned.
The Green Paper rightly points out the need for teachers and learning support assistants to have better training and even moots a special qualification for special educational needs co-ordinators. For newly qualified teachers, mention of special needs is all too often merely a token gesture in their training and the paper suggests beefing up this aspect of initial training. Given the limited time available on PGCEs, however, most training will inevitably have to occur as part of continuing professional development.
The emphasis on training is to be welcomed, though one has to note that it is all in the context of the dreaded words "as resources permit". But even this is an improvement on "within existing budget", which is what we got from the 1981 Act on special educational needs.
Although more could be wished for, overall one has to approve of this document. The general thrust is in the right direction - inclusion - and if all that is promised in fact emerges our provision for children with special needs should be more inclusive in the years ahead.
Gary Thomas is professor and reader in education at the University of the West of England, Bristol. His book, The Making of the Inclusive School, written with David Walker and Julie Webb, is published by Routledge this month