An all-party Commons inquiry into the state of special needs education in England and Wales has received a record amount of evidence for consideration by MPs. More than 180 organisations and individuals had sent submissions, even before the select committee had held its first hearing.
Half of the submissions were from parents who wanted to share their experiences of finding the right education for their child. The rest were from organisations and charities supporting families with children who have special needs.
David Lloyd, the committee clerk, said: "The response so far has been enormous. Normally, we would expect to get around 50 submissions.
"This indicates the huge levels of interest in this inquiry. We cannot really gauge yet how much time needs to be spent on it, but we will not be reporting back formally until the early part of the new year."
The inquiry will examine standards of provision in special and mainstream schools, paying close attention to the statementing system. It follows calls for reforms by Lady Warnock earlier this year.
The committee was due to hear evidence from Baroness Warnock at the end of last month, and planned a further five or six sessions with other interested parties before Christmas, Mr Lloyd said.
Initial submissions from organisations and charities reveal mixed feelings over the future of statementing. The Advisory Centre for Education, which gives advice and information to more than 60,000 parents a year, is urging the select committee to recommend that statements are retained. It believes that removing them would lead to an erosion of the rights of children to the type of education they need.
ACE argues in its submission: "Problems with statements arise from maladministration of the system rather than the system itself, which we believe was ahead of its time.
"The maladministration arises not from incompetence but from deliberate evasion of legal duties to individual children because of resource constraints."
It goes on: "Since 2001, the statementing system has also become a part of the delivery of one of the positive requirements of disability discrimination legislation in schools... It is therefore essential that it is maintained and improved."
The organisation also wants the Government to carry out an audit of the numbers of disabled children in the UK who need additional help to access education.
"We do not believe that these are available at the moment," it says, "and, without them, claims that statements can be reduced or SEN expenditure capped or redistributed, are unfounded."
However, Chris Gravell, ACE's policy officer, said the organisation was concerned that the committee would not consider some of its main points.
"The biggest worry is not where children are educated but whether they receive the appropriate provision," she said. "There needs to be enforcement where there are failures in the system."
The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice has a similar view to ACE on statementing. In its submission, it said that criticism of the system being over-bureaucractic was not shared by parents who viewed it as "a valuable protection" for children when their needs were not being met.
The organisation also argued that a well-written statement was a requirement if inclusion of a child was to be successful.
"Vaguely written statements are a deterrent to parents expressing a preference for a place in a mainstream school," its document states. They (parents) do not know what support their child will receive. Still worse, there is no guarantee that their child will receive any support.
"It is an irony that the Government should have launched an attack on the statementing system in 1997 at the same time as launching its attempt to promote inclusion.
"It is extraordinary that some eight years later, it is still unable to grasp the contradictory and self-defeating nature of these policies, despite the growing backlash against inclusion which it has itself provoked."
Roger Inman, the panel's chief executive, said: "It is important to have this inquiry now so we can review where we have got to in the inclusion process, and its practical consequences."
He added that he hoped the inquiry would also consider the implications of plans outlined in the recent White Paper to free schools from the control of local authorities. "We are concerned about how this is going to have an impact on admissions to mainstream schools of children with SEN. It cannot be taken for granted that existing priorities for these pupils will remain," he said.
Meanwhile, the communications charity I CAN, in its submission, has called for a three-pronged approach to help the estimated 1.2 million children who have speech and language problems. It wants a national model to be developed across all schools to support pupils with communication problems and ensure they are fully included, as well as a national strategy to ensure families are properly supported.
The charity is also urging an overhaul of statementing to address the "postcode lottery of provision", as well as provide timely and appropriate services to meet the needs of children and secure equality of opportunity.
It described existing procedures as "costly, cumbersome and time-consuming", and criticised the tribunals process.
"The inflexible and confrontational positions encouraged by the tribunal process results in damaged relationships, a prolonged process and negotiation, and an ongoing leeching of funds and resources ultimately to the detriment of all concerned."
The charity wants statements to be replaced with contractural arrangements between partner agencies. It says children are assessed by health agencies, who make recommendations but are not bound to provide the services to meet these.
SEN Consortium, an umbrella group of organisations, has highlighted the link between special needs and exclusions to the committee. It argues that schools are sometimes reluctant to make reasonable adjustments to their policies to accommodate SEN children, and this may have contributed to their exclusions.
Up to half of exclusions were thought to be caused by inadequate support of children with conditions such as ADHD, autism or mental health problems, the consortium said.