The biggest overhaul of special educational needs (SEN) provision for 30 years is supposed to improve care for the children most in need of help. But concerns that the move will lead to services being cut has sparked a rush for assessments that could result in a "meltdown" of the system. Worried parents and schools are attempting to get resources for SEN pupils legally protected before the system is reformed in 2014, councils and SEN experts have said.
Under plans set out by the government, statements for children with the most severe SEN will be scrapped and replaced with new combined education, health and care plans. Families will receive personal budgets to pay for services for their children. But the government has also said that it believes too many children are labelled as having SEN: it wants to abolish the current three categories of SEN, which denote different levels of need, and replace them with just one.
Schools and parents have been told that this will not lead to children being denied help, but the message does not appear to have convinced those on the ground, with educational psychologists reporting a spike in demand for assessments. If children are given statements now, they cannot be taken away under future reforms.
"It appears that in some local authorities, there is an increase in the numbers of statutory assessments being requested by parents and schools because of concern over what resources will be available in the future," said Kate Fallon, general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists. "There is an anxiety on the part of some schools about the possible effect future reforms and budget cuts might have on schools' ability to meet the needs of young people in the longer term."
Christopher Robertson, lecturer in inclusive and special education at the University of Birmingham, said the rise in demand for assessments comes as local authorities are being hit by budget cuts and shedding staff. This means councils could fail to meet deadlines to complete assessments within 20 weeks.
"The numbers of children waiting to be assessed could stack up to the extent where local authorities will be unable to respond to government requests regarding deadlines," said Mr Robertson. "It could create the kind of pressure that leads to a meltdown - that's the worst-case scenario. As well as councils not meeting deadlines, there could be waiting lists for assessments, and even a third group of children that local authorities start to judge as not warranting assessment. This is illegal, but I can see some councils adopting this rationing approach. I can't blame them - they are stuck between a rock and a hard place."
The number of children assessed by Stockton Council, Teesside, for example, rose from 80 in 2010-11 to 180 in 2011-12. Officials in Bristol have also reported an increase in requests for statements. "Feedback ... would suggest that parents want statements because they offer legal protection for the delivery of services, including provision and choice of school places, in a fast-changing education landscape," a Bristol City Council spokeswoman said.
Debbie Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, supports the government's attempts to simplify the SEN system, but warned of the need for a "coherent" funding package to meet pupil demand for services. "There is currently significant uncertainty about the funding arrangements in the new system," she said. "Wide-ranging changes are being made to school budgets at the same time as changes are being made to the assessment process."
A Department for Education spokesman said: "The current system of support for parents who have children with special educational needs does not work. We want to put parents in charge so that they have comprehensive support."
UPS AND DOWNS
1.7m - Number of pupils with SEN in England in 2009-10.
1.62m - Number of pupils with SEN in England in 2011-12.
224,000 - Number of pupils with SEN statements in 2009-10.
226,000 - Number of pupils with SEN statements in 2011-12.