Nicholas Pyke reports on a new plea to overhaul the allocation of help for special needs
Educational psychologists in England and Wales fear the system of protection for children with special needs is in danger of collapse unless the number of statements - the formal promises of extra help - is dramatically reduced.
A Government-sponsored research team, meanwhile, has concluded that there may be little point to the Scottish equivalent "Records of Need" system. Academics at Edinburgh University were "left in some doubt" as to its purpose.
Steve Colwill, outgoing president of the Association of Educational Psychologists, said local education authorities cannot cope with the rising cost or the bureaucracy of statements.
The Association believes that most of the burden should be shifted to individual schools - in line with the recently introduced Code of Practice. Statements are suitable, it argues, only for those with severe and complex problems.
"It will free educational psychologists from the millstone of statutory assessment and allow them to do more preventative work," said Mr Colwill at the recent annual meeting of the AEP. However children with complex difficulties would always need the protection of a statement.
A radically simplified system would also have the support of many headteachers. Dr Jean Chadha, head of Dorton House School for blind and partially sighted children in Kent, said: "The process is unnecessarily cumbersome. The two systems are not compatible. The statementing system was set up in the 1970s. It was not set up for LEAs fighting for their existence and with extremely limited budgets. The cost to us is enormous: up to three days a week of senior staff time just for reviewing statements. It's absurd. We're drowning in paperwork. "
Geoff Lindsay, vice-president of the British Psychological Society, agreed that the system needs slimming down. "The issue is to maintain the safeguards for the children who are the most vulnerable while removing the bureaucracy which eats up so many resources," he said. "I think the statutory assessment system is OK for the most vulnerable children. The problem comes in that area between those with major special educational needs and those in the mainstream grouping.
"I think the more we can resource schools to accept children with special needs, the fewer referrals for statements there should be. It is a major issue. In some authorities it has reached 3, 4 and 5 per cent: it's not sustainable. You're putting money from the mainstream budget into special needs, recycling it through a costly and bureaucratic process. Children with special needs don't have their rights protected if money is syphoned off to less needy children. "
An approach of reducing the number of statements by putting more money into schools has the support of the Government and the Audit Commission. It very much fits into the semi-statutory Code of Practice which has an emphasis on categories of need.
Most LEAs have already introduced tight new definitions of need to restrict requests for statements which have risen in number from 153,000 to 211, 000 between 1991 and 1995.
But the changes have angered special needs advocates who say that they are being used to undermine children's entitlement to have their educational needs met, whatever the cost.
John Wright from the Independent Panel for Special Educational Advice (IPSEA) believes that some local authorities are now imposing rules which prevent children receiving assessments and statements - statements which are needed because, whatever the authority says, the school does not possess enough money or expertise to do the job on its own.
"If the child's got needs the law states that those needs must be met, " he said. IPSEA believes that LEAs are still routinely breaking the law; refusing to issue adequate statements to save money.
At issue is a clash between two different views of the LEA's job. To many parents and advocacy groups there is a right at stake - the right, which they believe is guaranteed in the 1981 and 1993 Education Acts, to have an objective assessment of children's needs and to then have those needs met by the LEA. For councils, in contrast, the starting point is money and the only thing they say they can do is divide a small cake in the fairest manner.
"If society wants to retract the legislation the way to do it is to get Parliament to chuck out the 1993 Education Act", says Mr Wright. "You cannot just ignore it as so many LEAs do. In any other area of national life it would be a scandal."
Mr Lindsay believes that the solution does lie with criteria, but only if they are drawn up with agreement and adequately funded. "They have got to take parents with them. It's got to be open to scrutiny. The development of criteria should be carried out by a broad range of people. And nothing I have said should detract from my view that we need to put more money into resourcing inclusive education from the outset."