27th October 2000 at 01:00
The recent ruling by the House of Lords against Hillingdon local education authority for a school's failure to identify a special need may ultimately be more complex than identification alone. Potentially there is a failure to act, or failure to act swiftly enough, having identified the need; there is failure to invest sufficient resources - the list goes on into areas of expertise and areas of placement, detail of individual education plans (IEPs) and details of statements.

These documents are official records and will be available to parents and students in the future and may well form the basis of evidence in litigation. As the head of a large special school, I frequently receive case papers for children who have been known to a range of agencies for many years. The decision to try a special school may be between six and eight years after such identification. We have such a well-developed system of health checks and baby clinics that delayed development is soon discovered. Can we honestly justify deciding to move into special needs provision when there may only be four years of education left?

The inclusion lobby oversimplifies the issue by ignoring the desire of parents of children with a special need to obtain the best, whatever or wherever that might be; hence fund-raising and great efforts within the family's community to access the best, be it the US (autism) or Hungary (cerebral palsy). Parents do not want to be offered second best - and they want to be fully informed. I write as a bereaved parent, as well as an educator, who knows some of the pain involved in fighting for resources and specific diagnosis. What we want most is a cure but, if no, then some degree of respect and normality, together with unlimited access to the best provision.

An adult recently reported on John Peel's Home Truths (Radio 4) the story of a whole childhood of being bullied as a youngster with special needs in a succession of mainstream schools. Supposing this too becomes actionable; Bigtown LEA, for the best of reasons, manages a child's special educational needs in a mainstream context, with the right support and correct diagnosis, and yet playtime is a nightmare for 11 years.

There is often a conflict between what is seen as normal and accessing the best possible services for the child. This cannot be resolved without a more fluid and flexible pattern of education, where all specialist resources are on the site of mainstream schools, in multi-disciplinary teams, and where nursery education - and NNEBs in particular - are given due recognition. These new multi-disciplinary teams will include welfare rights officers, counsellors and medics; speech therapists, physiotherapists and audiologists will also be on site.

This team could be ready in the next five years and individuals could be allocated to support between three and five children from the pre-school stage. This would include home-based family work, would be cost-effective and would offer a longitudinal approach lacking at present. The adult would remain constant. Currently we move the child from teacher to teacher, school to school - the only constants are the parents' concern and the child's frustration.

Some realistic cost analysis is required based on human worth.

Mic Carolan is a head and SEN inspector with 32 years' experience

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