Special needs cash does not follow pupil

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Joan Dalton's piece (TES, March 28) reveals some common misconceptions about special needs funding. Special needs budgets are not, as she asserts, "running away with huge amounts of local authority resources". This appears to be the case because local authorities are trying to maintain two systems - a special school system and a mainstream special system - with resources only for one.

But let's first address the "huge amounts" question. This country does not spend huge amounts on its special needs children. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has shown that internationally an average of eight times as much is spent per child in a special school as is spent on a child in the mainstream. In the United States it is 15 times as much. In Britain it is 4.5 times as much. We do not therefore resource our special children lavishly.

However, the real problem which Joan Dalton's school faces in including a child with Down's syndrome is not the size of this differential, since the differential applies only to children in special schools. The real problem is that the differential does not accompany children as they move from special to mainstream.

LEAs are having to respond to the official sanctioning of integration while continuing to maintain a substantial establishment of special schools. Thus, some individual children are being offered mainstream places, but while this happens special schools in most LEAs are remaining the same size (in staff and capital terms) and consuming the same resources as before integration.

As the Audit Commission showed, the special sector is thus becoming more expensive per child as its population gradually drops, while integrated children are having to survive on the meagre additional provision which LEA administrators glean from other corners of their budgets.

In this situation - of "mainstreamed special" having to be financed alongside "special special" - LEAs will be forever stretching resources, and mainstreaming individual children only where it is "economically efficient" (or only where parents are sufficiently litigious).

At the same time they will be maintaining a special sector which becomes increasingly expensive as it accommodates a dwindling population of harder-to-place children. "Inclusion" in such circumstances will be perpetually underfunded, as mainstreamed children are not accompanied - as they travel from one system to another - by the resources formerly committed to them in the special school. The inevitable result will be the regular breakdown of individual mainstream placements as schools struggle in vain to meet children's needs - as Joan Dalton's school is struggling.

The solution is to restructure special schools into inclusion services, as some LEAs have begun to do, and as Barnardo's have done with certain of their special schools (notably in the Somerset Inclusion Project). In doing this they liberate significant additional resources to finance inclusion and make it work. It is only with structural changes of this kind that the dilemma to which Joan Dalton alludes will be resolved.

PROFESSOR GARY THOMAS Faculty of Education Redland Campus Redland Hill, Bristol

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