SEN costs - and it's worth every penny

20th October 2006 at 01:00
My son Oliver is deaf, but with his cochlear implant (a hi-tech aid that can give excellent hearing even to profoundly deaf children) and wonderful support provided by the specialist unit at his mainstream primary, he is doing pretty well.

Many acquaintances have commented "You wouldn't know he was deaf" - so presumably he is the sort of child the local authority mandarins had in mind when they informed our school that they are considering slashing funding for deaf units attached to schools.

This is ironic, because Kent has, until now, always had a good reputation for provision for the deaf.

The official justification is that new technology has largely "fixed"

deafness, so hearing-impaired children are no longer at a disadvantage in class, and that since behavioural problems - autism particularly - are spiralling, they need extra funds. It's a mixture of breathtaking ignorance and cynical penny-pinching.

Research shows that about half of all deaf children also suffer from other speech and language disorders, which means that, even if they can have a cochlear implant (and not all deaf children can) they may not be able to use the hearing it gives them to best effect.

Also, the implant is not a simple device. The sound it gives is electronic, unlike ordinary, amplified sound. It takes time and practice for the child to adapt to it.

Lastly, however sophisticated the technology deaf children have, however bright they are, classrooms are noisy places, and often acoustically hopeless for hearing aid users. It can be hard to see the teacher's face to lip-read, and the pace of information exchange is just too fast to follow without help.

Oliver, with no additional problems beyond his deafness, has only done so well because of specialist support. In class, specialist teaching assistants make sure he fully understands what he has to do. He can be withdrawn from class, with a small group of friends, for parallel lessons taught by a qualified teacher of the deaf.

This is labour-intensive, expensive schooling. It is also what high-quality mainstreaming is all about. According to Kent County Council, the withdrawn funding would help improve support for autistic children in the mainstream.

What sort of view of mainstreaming holds that funds should be cut from one group of special needs children to fund another? If the government is as committed to mainstreaming as it says, it should realise that quality education for SEN children can't be done on the cheap.

It needs enough specialised teaching assistants and specialist teachers in schools to make it work - for SEN children, for their classmates and last but not least, for their teachers.

Claire, a teacher friend in a mainstream primary, despairs of ever being able to teach her Year 3 class effectively. Her time is consumed by coping with an autistic pupil whose behaviour is barely controllable even with help from a classroom assistant. She would welcome specialist help, but ultimately believes the boy is not in the best educational environment.

"There comes a point when you can see that a child like this needs the expertise of a special school. He's not the only child with severe behavioural issues where I've honestly thought that mainstreaming was in no one's interests," she says. Claire, and other teachers I've spoken to, believe that while many SEN children do better in the mainstream, this is only the case where the placement - and the support - is appropriate.

They fear the move to downgrade the excellent, but expensive provision to children who are benefiting from inclusion in order to keep in the mainstream children who might be better nurtured in special schools is bad news for teachers.

"It's just one more thing that makes the job harder. I can't provide for the needs of that child; I can't give his classmates the time they need.

And I am exhausted and frustrated at the end of it," says Claire.

This story saddens me, not so much for Oliver, who has already had the benefit of an excellent start in school life, but for other, younger deaf children. It is surely a sad day when an education authority can so blithely consider wrecking what has been a rare beacon of good practice in SEN.

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