The government's reform programme is supposed to be the biggest change for a generation to services for children with special educational needs (SEN).
But it seems ministers who hope to transform the SEN system have been pipped at the post by council bosses who have already ordered wide-ranging cuts and reforms to the support they offer vulnerable pupils in order to save money.
Some cash-strapped councils have axed up to a third or more of all senior staff employed to help children with SEN, according to a TES investigation.
Figures obtained from every local authority in England show a significant fall in the number of employees working with vulnerable pupils in the past two years. In SEN departments, there has been a reduction of 11 per cent since 2009 to just over 2,000. At many councils, there are now 25-30 per cent less staff in SEN departments.
Unsurprisingly, local authorities blame cuts in government funding for the loss of the posts and say they have been forced to reorganise SEN departments because of these smaller budgets.
A total of 45 per cent of councils have axed SEN managers and advisers since 2009, including many working in SEN, diversity and inclusion services.
The figures illustrate that it has been a turbulent few years for those working in the sector, and they will have to make further changes. A green paper this year proposed scrapping the legally binding statements of children's SEN and replacing them with a combined "education, health and care plan", as well as introducing a single SEN register.
Teaching unions believe the reduction in the number of SEN staff makes a mockery of the Government's special-needs reform programme. "It renders the green paper completely redundant," said Mary Bousted, general secretary of education union ATL, warning that authorities will struggle to implement changes.
"The infrastructure needed is shot through the ground. The Government has said many fine words about joined up working. Where are the specialist staff going to be to join up with each other?"
Donald Rae, SEN policy adviser to the Local Government Association, agreed, saying the staffing cuts might not have always been intentional. He believes SEN employees might have been more likely to take voluntary redundancy than other local authority employees.
"Many people who work in special educational needs departments came in after the Warnock reforms (Mary Warnock's 1978 report called for specialist provision for children with SEN) several decades ago, so they might have chosen to take early retirement," he said. "This means the reduction in staff might not have been a deliberate decision by some local authorities."
Mr Rae also said that some of the falls in staff numbers relate to changes in the way councils are deploying their workforces. "Where they have restructured, it seems staff are taking on a broader role rather than just dealing with special educational needs."
Overall, just 14 per cent of councils have increased their SEN staff numbers since 2009.
At Gloucestershire County Council, the number of SEN staff has fallen by nearly half since 2009, from 77 to 38. A spokeswoman said the local authority had to "prioritise spending" because of a "significant funding gap over the next four years".
And there is a similar story at Sunderland City Council, where the number employed to work in SEN support has been cut from 10 to six in the past three years. Despite the statistics, deputy executive director of children's services Mike Foster said there had been "no reduction" in the services offered to children or schools. "The process of restructuring of SEN and other services across the city council is undertaken with the dual purpose of better service delivery and efficiency savings," he said.
There has also been a 20 per cent drop in SEN managers at Stoke-on-Trent City Council, from 19 in 2009 to 15 in 2011. "While it is true that some of the staffing reductions in this area have been due to budget cuts, we were also doing this to make services more flexible and, equally, more responsive to customers' needs," said councillor Debra Gratton, cabinet member for children's services.
But the ATL's Dr Bousted does not agree. "It could lead to a serious lack of duty of care for the more vulnerable," she warned.
THE BIGGEST CUTS
Number of employees in local authority SEN departments
Sunderland: Six, down from 10 in 2009
Brent: 14, down from 24 in 2009
Halton: 12, down from 19 in 2009
Herefordshire: Six, down from 10 in 2009
Kirklees: 4.6, down from 13 in 2009.
Original headline: SEN staff numbers fall by a not so special 11%