Teachers in charge of pupils with special needs need to be given more help by heads and deputies, according to a report from the Office for Standards in Education published last week.
The report is the first indication of the performance of the code of practice, introduced in autumn 1994 to improve the identification of pupils in need of special help.
Inspectors surveyed primary and secondary schools in 33 education authorities between March and December 1994, so some of the results are pre-code. The focus was on pupils in mainstream schools with special needs but without statements.
The report also notes that the number of pupils identified as having special needs varies widely between schools (from 1.5 to 53 per cent). It says that special needs co-ordinators do not get adequate training. "Less than half the LEAs provide appropriate training for their learning support staff."
However, the general conclusion is that standards achieved by SEN pupils within mainstream schools are sound, though these children tend to progress better at key stages 1 and 2 than at 3 and 4.
Paul Ennals, director of education at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, was chairman of the special needs consortium that drew up the code of practice. He said that while the code was "perhaps the only document in the past 10 years that has been broadly welcomed by all sections in education", it has imposed extra duties and responsibilities on special needs co-ordinators without providing the extra money or time.
"I hate to sound like a weedy liberal crying for more money, but the fact is that co-ordinators have taken on a range of different duties since the code was introduced, and the only real way to make this burden acceptable is funding to allow teachers to have more non-contact time. The situation has been made especially difficult at a time when governing bodies are having to reduce staff."
A related problem, according to an OFSTED spokeswoman, is that once a teacher has been put in charge of special needs, the rest of the staff tend to abdicate responsibility.
The wide variation in numbers of special needs pupils identified by schools can also be explained by the time factor, said Mr Ennals. "Some schools have been getting their act together on the code quicker than others - once they find the time, more children tend to be identified." But simply identifying a child's problem does not bring extra help. Therefore, said Mr Ennals, the pressure on schools to secure statements wherever possible has increased.