Statements of intent on road to SEN revolution

17th December 2010 at 00:00
Analysis - The special needs system is facing its biggest shake-up since Warnock after widespread criticism that children's learning difficulties are too often 'over-identified'. But, as Kerra Maddern reports, any new solutions must be cut to austerity's cloth

Education secretary Michael Gove may have dominated the headlines with his attempts to overhaul mainstream schools since taking office in May, but behind the scenes a quiet revolution in special educational needs (SEN) has also begun.

Children's minister Sarah Teather is planning an overhaul of SEN provision that is expected to make some of the most significant changes since the system was established 30 years ago, following the Warnock report.

According to Ms Teather, children are currently being "failed" by services and there is a need for major reform. In response, the minister is overseeing a green paper, due to be published this winter, that will see parents taking a new role as "partners in the system". Meanwhile, the powers of local authority officials - who both assess and fund SEN - are expected to be cut.

But the review has also been prompted by the public spending cuts. Support for SEN costs more than #163;4 billion a year and services are already being axed by councils.

Ms Teather's revised system has been designed to cope with the "limited resources" that are now available. Her action has also been partly motivated by concerns that, despite the billions spent on SEN under the former Labour government, some long-standing problems remain unsolved.

Only 2.5 per cent of pupils have such severe special educational needs that they are eligible for a statement and have specialists involved in their case. But teachers are identifying more and more children with SEN. They are overwhelmingly boys, twice as likely to be eligible for free school meals and born in the summer months.

Labour ministers, well aware of the criticisms of the SEN system, commissioned a number of studies: the Lamb inquiry, the Salt review, the Bercow report, plus investigations into the problems of literacy and dyslexia by Sir Jim Rose.

More recently, Ofsted inspectors have entered the fray, arguing that schools put children on the SEN register to make up for poor teaching, leading pupils to underachieve.

While planning the changes, Ms Teather and her civil servants have met many people who work within the SEN system. Some say they have been impressed by her determination that teachers and other professionals should have "higher expectations" for children with learning difficulties.

Despite the fact that a Liberal Democrat MP is in charge of the reforms, the changes will echo the Conservative principles underlying the introduction of new-style academies and free schools.

The intention is that there will be less bureaucracy, freeing up professionals to spend more time with children and families, and "greater transparency". There will also be a focus on more local solutions, with schools and local authorities able to develop provision that makes the "best use of staff and specialist resources".

Ms Teather will have realised by now that improvements to SEN provision will not be easy. One of the major issues any new legislation will have to tackle is that of over-identification of SEN.

At present, it is widely acknowledged that there are "perverse" incentives for schools to put children on the SEN register. A higher rate of SEN can attract more funding, be used to demonstrate the challenges of working in deprived areas and help to boost a school's value added score. In other words, if you move underachieving pupils into the SEN system, the average performance of the rest of the pupils dramatically improves.

Philippa Stobbs, a former government adviser and now principal officer of the Council for Disabled Children, says the lack of a "relative" definition of SEN is the biggest cause of over-identification. Like Ofsted, she believes teachers use the SEN system for pupils who are only slightly behind, and uses official statistics to make her point.

Around 42 per cent of children on the SEN register below the age of seven have speech, language and communication difficulties. This falls to just 5 per cent by the time they are aged 12-17. Ms Stobbs believes this is because those children go on to be labelled as having "moderate learning difficulties" when they are aged seven to 11, and then "behavioural, emotional and social difficulties" aged 12-17.

According to Ms Stobbs, these statistics show that many instances of SEN are really just signs of normal child development.

More evidence of over-identification of SEN is shown by the differences between numbers of cases in schools. Ten secondary schools say 90-100 per cent of pupils have special educational needs, while 427 put fewer than 10 per cent of their pupils on the SEN register.

"It's worrying that, once labelled, children stay in the system, and it demonstrates that many SEN problems are just developmental," Ms Stobbs says. "Many cases of special educational needs are actually because of deprivation, the curriculum or simply because children are falling behind.

"But this is not a case of lazy teaching. Instead of blaming teachers what we need to do is increase their capacity to teach a wider range of children. We need to get them fired up about how to convey complex ideas to pupils ... If the emphasis is on what the child can do next, rather than what they can't do, the need for the use of the SEN system recedes."

Lord Balchin, who chaired the last Conservative review of SEN policy in 2005, recommends simpler assessment and better teacher training. "In my view, the most important issue to tackle is teacher expertise. A tiny proportion of training is dedicated to SEN," he says. "Courses need to be radically revised in order to improve this situation. We need far better in-service training, too, for special educational needs co-ordinators and for teachers in special schools. At the moment, they struggle to go on, and to pay for courses."

The cost of supporting those with SEN is sizeable. In mainstream schools, it varies from #163;1,045 per child to #163;1,818. The total bill rose from #163;2.8 billion in 2002 to #163;4.1 billion in 2006.

A total of 1.7 million children - 21 per cent of those of school age - are classed as having SEN, largely similar to the proportion in other European countries.

But some experts have argued that the wrong children are identified as having SEN, perhaps as a result of poor behaviour that gets them noticed, while others with problems go undetected. Indeed, the Lamb report said this was the reason families did not have confidence in the current SEN system.

Ms Teather has promised parents that they will no longer have to "battle" to get the support they think their child needs. But in a time of public spending cuts, where will the money for this extra help come from?

Dismantling the bureaucracy which becomes part and parcel of teaching a child who has SEN will be a difficult undertaking. There are statements, which give children a legal right to support, and a code of practice. But the solution may already exist. Teachers have been pioneering, quietly, a SEN revolution which they hope Ms Teather will support.

Achievement for All was set up in an attempt to get schools to change their attitude towards SEN children. By switching the focus away from labelling children, teachers have discovered that not singling pupils out - but instead providing support for all - can pay dividends (see box, above).

The project, run by the National College and the National Strategies, has already boosted attendance and reduced bullying, and those who run the scheme hope it has a healthy future. They also hope that Ms Teather will look to their work for inspiration during the Government's SEN review. Certainly, its message of innovation without a huge spend could prove popular during this time of austerity.


All-round solution

Teachers involved in the Achievement for All project hope it will provide inspiration for the Government's planned overhaul of the SEN system.

The initiative, which supports all pupils rather than singling out those in need of "special" treatment, already has a track record of improving attendance and cutting exclusion rates.

"We want to move away from the formality involved with SEN, and its association with documentation, in order to get teachers to think more clearly about children's needs. That is what is important," says Sonia Blandford, Achievement for All national director.

The project is running in 455 schools in 10 local authorities over two years, and is due to end in 2011. Absence among the 19,000 pupils at these primary and secondary schools has already fallen by 8 per cent in the past two terms.

At Caedmon Community Primary School in Gateshead, the number of "negative incidents" in the playground has halved since it was introduced and teachers started running games and activities. Attendance has risen from 92 per cent to 94.9 per cent.

At Cardinal Newman Catholic School in Coventry, absenteeism has fallen by 26 per cent since the Achievement for All scheme was introduced.

And at Lee Chapel Primary School in Basildon, Essex, the abandonment of the status quo means teachers are not on the "hamster wheel" of following every new government initiative, according to head Sue Jackson.

"I thought I was doing a good job," she says. "In fact, what I was doing was good paperwork. I never thought about what our special educational needs teaching should be.

"Because we thought we had all the right children on the SEN register, I thought our work was a success."

The challenge for Mrs Jackson and other teachers now is to fund the programme during tough financial times. She has no money to pay teaching assistants to work longer hours, instead relying on them to work more flexibly on a different timetable from that of teachers.

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