Stalemate in a game of chance

20th January 2006 at 00:00
The world of special needs is desperate for a change in the rules, writes Jean Gross

MPs are investigating special educational needs in England and will soon report back, but will they be bold enough to recommend major changes to the statementing process?

Like a board game with the goal of achieving maximum funding for individual children, for many of the parents it was intended to support the statementing system has proved to have more snakes than ladders. My computer spellchecker calls it "stalemating".

From Baroness Warnock to the Audit Commission, critics have said it breeds bureaucracy, favours the articulate and leads to geographical inequity. The statementing system does not seem to have increased children's attainment, or teachers' skills and knowledge about SEN. According to a recent TES poll, most teachers report having had less than a day's training on it, yet almost all will be teaching children with statements.

Peter Blatchford and his colleagues at London university's institute of education report a 99 per cent increase in the number of teaching assistants from 1998 to 2004, most of them working with children who have learning difficulties. In the same period, the percentage of very low-attaining children (below level 3 by the end of key stage 2) remained static at 7 per cent in English, and 6 per cent in maths. Children entering secondary school with a statement who achieved at least a level 4 at KS2 made less progress over the course of KS3 than children without statements.

The problem is that we may be statementing the wrong person.

What if we had a system in which funding is allocated not to the child but to the child's class or subject teachers - so that they can attend relevant training? At present, such training tends to go to the teaching assistant because assistants are easier and cheaper to free up. Assistants are often better trained in SEN than teachers. Can this be right? Can it be right that the pupils who are hardest to teach spend less time with qualified teachers than those who are easier to teach? This is a system that assumes that if a child's progress is not sufficient, it proves the case for more support - rather than prompting the more apt response of reviewing whether the teaching and learning strategies in the classroom were effective in the first place.

The irony is that a system designed to offer high-quality provision has perverse incentives that act to reduce that quality. The system encourages schools to push children up the funding ladder rather than reflect on their own practice and, where necessary, change it. Moreover, the system was designed at a time when the only means of securing accountability to parents of children with special needs was through quantifiable inputs (time allocated to the child or provision of equipment).

The SEN system has pushed too many children out of learning and teaching and into support and care. We must turn this on its head if we are, in the words of a colleague of mine, to make SEN "an intervention, not a lifestyle". We have in an era in which accountability can be defined by outcomes, not inputs, and in which parents are to be offered detailed analysis of their child's progress. In time, this will include progress on the P scales, which describe children's performance up to level 1. In this case, one can imagine a system in which schools and parents would know whether provision was having sufficient impact on achievement - or, as we get better at evaluating the other Every Child Matters outcomes, whether the child felt safe, was healthy, enjoyed school and could make a positive contribution.

A referral could then automatically be made to a local learning support centre, where specialists could work with the child's teachers to identify professional development needs and support necessary changes to teaching programmes.

Although no longer needed for accountability to parents, it might be argued that statements are still needed as a passport to special schools or units.

But this would be redundant in a future in which the learning support centre (formerly a special school) offered full and part-time placements, specialist advice, training, modelling and coaching for mainstream staff.

Children would not need statements to spend time in these centres. A short or longer-term placement would be one of the options considered when a progress review showed that the learning and teaching on offer was not working well. No longer would children with behavioural, emotional and social needs be excluded from mainstream school during a long-winded statementing process, or fall into the uneasy gap between provision for those whose bad behaviour is thought to be due to SEN and those seen as simply "naughty". These children in particular, and their teachers, would benefit from the rapid and non-bureaucratic response a learning support centre might offer. At a stroke, teachers would feel better-supported and trained, inclusion would feel less of an uphill struggle, and accountability to parents would be enhanced.

Misuse of the new system - by, say, schools failing to heed the advice of learning support centres, or colluding with them to secure exclusion from mainstream for longer than called for - could still be countered by our existing robust anti- disability discrimination laws.

Most of all, some of the heavy burden of paperwork would be lifted. Special needs co-ordinators, teachers and educational psychologists could focus again on what we seem to have forgotten - that progress for children with special needs is about the quality of teaching they receive, not the quantity of paperwork in their file.

Jean Gross was formerly responsible for the primary national strategy's work on inclusion, and is now director of the Every Child a Reader initiative

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