Outlook cloudy

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Money allocated to schools under the Code of Practice may not be sticking to its target. Recent research raises questions about the mechanisms and levels of resourcing of statemented and non-statemented pupils. Roy Evans and Di Bentley report.

Partnership and leadership are vital for the effective delivery of special needs provision. While leadership in terms of funding may begin with local authorities, schools themselves need to show the way forward in developing criteria for the effective tracking of funding.

These are just two of the findings of a year-long research project run by Roehampton Institute London in collaboration with four outer London boroughs and one large shire authority. The project was designed to explore and compare placement practice and the mechanisms and levels of resourcing for children with and without statements in the light of the Code of Practice on Special Educational Needs.

Schools also need to develop robust advice and decision-making procedures as to the best management and governance of available resources. This advice and decision-making is best done in partnership with the expertise already in existence in special schools and in the LEA. The LEAs may not be playing the key leadership roles any longer, but their knowledge and advice is worth having. Similarly, "forgotten sector" colleagues in special schools have a great deal of experience of the real criteria for effectiveness that mainstream schools now need to establish in the light of the new Code of Practice.

The research involved a questionnaire to special needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) in all 700 primary and secondary schools in the five LEAs, with a 60 per cent response rate and interviews with a sample of SENCOs, teachers, heads and governors (including special schools, special units and grant maintained schools). Our research team also had access to LEA documents on SEN policy and provision. The project featured a range of key questions, such as how do schools target their resources to children with special needs, specifically the non-statement support within their budgets? Who is responsible for making these decisions and how are the outcomes evaluated?

To what extent are governors able to take ownership of SEN policy and interrogate the cost effectiveness of professional decisions regarding the targeting and deployment of resources in support of the policy?

Across all the LEAs there was general satisfaction with the Code itself and with the structures and systems that the different LEAs had put in place for its implementation. This finding was similar for all the people interviewed - governors, heads, SENCOs, and LEA officials. True, some heads were more cautious and pointed out that it was too early to tell if the structures were working effectively, but they were reasonably confident that the new systems were potentially an improvement on what had gone before. Some saw the Code as merely an extension of their own school and LEA existing good practice.

However, in tackling the issue of the management of resources in schools, and their effective use, the picture becomes much cloudier. Governors reported some disquiet about the funding changes that had happened in putting the new systems into place. Most admitted that despite in many cases excellent training by the LEA, they themselves had no real idea what constituted an effective use of resources for special needs pupils and such ideas as they do have are not based on performance indicators or hard evidence of progress in relation to financial allocation. Our interviews indicate that in general, governors perceive themselves as not well equipped to deal with the financial implications of pupils with or without statements in mainstream schools. Considerable variation was also reported in the ways in which schools judge the effectiveness of the support provided for pupils with special needs. We can find virtually no evidence, for example, of governing bodies requiring reports of the effectiveness of support interventions that in practice they agree to resource.

There is little evidence in our data, either, of meaningful accountability of heads to governing bodies on use of resources, since most governors regard this as a matter for "professional judgment". There is also the related issue that governors appear to have very little operational understanding of the concept of "value for money" in respect of SEN provision and are reliant on the professionals in this matter. This leads us to the view that, by and large, the governance of SEN provision in many schools schools is well described as an act of faith in the advice of the head and the SENCO.

Of all those involved in the new procedures, the SENCO is the lynchpin. In many schools not only do they put the Code into practice, they are also the fount of knowledge and advice for the head, the governors and for their colleagues, as well as being a major source of information about LEA practices and documentation. Inevitably, they drew attention to their increased administrative burden and the lack of time available to complete this work. Taken alongside evidence from others interviewed, a professional view emerges of limited resources being dissipated through bureaucracy - the vast majority have many other responsibilities. In the view of the SENCOs, the time they have available would best be spent working with their colleagues and children rather than on paperwork.

The SENCOs, however, are in difficult and varying positions with regard to their ability to proffer the advice needed by heads and governors. One in five are not on full time contracts and in secondary schools less than one in four are members of the senior team. Of the 430 or so SENCOs who responded to the questionnaire, only 35 per cent had any formal qualifications in special needs. Primary schools are particularly disadvantaged here with less than one in three SENCOs reporting a qualification. There seems to be little relationship between time allowed to complete the role and the number of pupils and staff needing support. Many SENCOs are class teachers too, particularly in primary schools.

Given the difficulties in managing the budgets for special needs, it is no suprise to find that LEAs are not pro-active in monitoring the use of resources in stages 1 to 3 of the Code. The LEAs in our research are working towards establishing criteria by which schools can examine evidence of ways in which this financial allocation is differentially targeted. The struggle to cut costs, centralise decision-making processes and in general "get a handle and a grip" on the practices and decisions, all have a bearing on leadership issues.

In the push to maximum delegation, a major issue for LEAs is how much leadership they can, or should show to schools. Should they leave all the responsibility to schools and simply see themselves as the monitors? Or should they produce blueprint for practice as well as policy?

Not surprisingly, the LEAs in our study had different views. Some were very "hands off". Others were cautious, and at least one was very clear that partnership, firm and established was the way forward.

In the light of our research, we have this to say to all the partners: o Recognise that governors in general feel ill-equipped to judge the effectiveness of the use of resources for SEN.

o Clarify, by working together with special schools and the LEA, common performance indicators for the effective use of resources for non-statemented pupils in mainstream schools and establish models of accountability for such funds.

o Clarify the responsibilities of the LEA with regard to the provision of development support for staff in curriculum terms in mainstream schools.

o Recognise that while the majority of SENCOs do have staff development written into their job descriptions, a high proportion of them have no formal qualifications in SEN.

o Help teachers focus on the Code's concern for children's learning rather than its procedural requirements. The heavy bureaucracy tends to obscure its central purpose.

o The complete report of the research may be obtained from Dr Roy Evans, Roehampton Institute London, Roehampton Lane, London SW15 5PJ. Price Pounds 5.95

Dr Roy Evans is assistant dean: research and Di Bentley is assistant dean: quality, in the Faculty of Education, Roehampton Institute London

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