As Teather ushers in new SEN era, worries on clarity persist

25th March 2011 at 00:00

The Government's plans for the special educational needs (SEN) system have been billed by ministers as the most ambitious for a generation.

In a green paper published earlier this month, children's minister Sarah Teather outlined far-reaching reforms to everything from statementing to teacher training and new rights for parents.

She says the 21 per cent of pupils classed as having a SEN of some type is too high. She wants to open the SEN "market" by creating academies and free schools to give parents a wider choice of schools.

She says she will also give heads of special schools "greater independence" from local authorities, and council officials might lose their responsibility for assessing SEN.

With the plans still at consultation stage, charities and SEN campaign groups have issued warnings that the proposals would lead to confusion and waste.

Funding for the reforms is unclear, but new initiatives are due to start as soon as September. Here Kerra Maddern examines three of the biggest areas for change.

Assessment - Statements scrapped

The statement - the foundation of the SEN system for more than 30 years - will be scrapped and replaced with a "combined education, health and care plan" lasting until the age of 25, under one of the most radical coalition proposals.

The "school action" and "school action plus" categories for children with SEN - but without a statement - will also be axed. In their place will be a simpler register to "help teachers focus on raising attainment" and stop what ministers view as the "over-identification" of SEN.

Ministers say the plans will allow joined-up support for education and health issues, cutting bureaucracy and multiple assessments.

But SEN charities and organisations are concerned the plan will lack "teeth" unless health workers are compelled by legislation to contribute to the assessment.

Brian Lamb, who led the previous government's SEN review, said: "There are complex details to sort out, especially how different health and education entitlements can be forged into a clear accountability structure for parents that would (reassure them) that what was promised . would be delivered."

The plan will give pupils the same legal rights as a statement. But NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said the changes "will simply create anxiety and fear that children may no longer qualify for support".

But Chris Husbands, director of London University's Institute of Education, believes the proposals could offer advantages. He added: "The challenge of joining up education, social care and health provision are enormous and quality assurance systems that focus on the results of such partnerships will be vital."

Changes are also likely to the role of educational psychologists. Department for Education officials believe parental confidence is undermined by the "conflict of interest" caused by the local authority providing support and assessing children's needs.

Parental Rights - Personal budgets wrest control from LAs

Parents will be given funding so they can have "greater control" over the services given to their child, under proposals outlined by the Government.

The details of the personal budget are yet to be announced, but the aim is to re-allocate some of the money that goes to local authorities and give it directly to parents who can then choose how it is spent.

This may include funding for specialist equipment, language support or physiotherapy. It is not designed to contribute to independent school fees.

Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of the National Association for Special Educational Needs, has called for "very clear guidance" on how the personal budgets will work.

"What will happen if the child's provision costs more than the budget allocated to parents? What about transport costs?" she said. "There will be a need to consider local provision and its ability to meet the needs of the children it serves. This could become more difficult with the growth of academies and free schools."

Christopher Robertson, lecturer in inclusive and special education at Birmingham University, said that a "quasi market" approach to SEN promoted by the Government could prove "problematic" if less funding was available. "It is also difficult to see how a coherent system of provision can be developed and sustained if there is a free-for-all," he said.

"I can (fore)see children travelling for miles each day to attend provision deemed to be right by their parents or carers. In a climate of cuts surely more, not less, systematic planning is required at local, regional and national levels."

Artemi Sakellariadis, director of the Campaign for Studies on Inclusive Education, said the proposals will not give a "real choice" to parents.

"If the full spectrum of provision is to become available for all parents to choose from, the capacity of mainstream schools to respond to the full diversity of learners has to increase," she said.

The green paper also proposes to compell parents to go to mediation if they disagree with a local authority decision about SEN support in a bid to cut down on legal action. Campaigners have warned that families could be put under pressure to settle cases and accept decisions they are unhappy with.

Meanwhile, schools will only have to publish "core" information about their SEN services rather than the 17 different parts they are currently required to make public.

But new league tables showing the performance of special school pupils in detail will be published for the first time in order to make their teachers "more accountable".

Teacher Training - `Excellent' knowledge for all

Every teacher will be expected to have "excellent knowledge and skills" to support children with special educational needs, under the Government's plans.

Children told Ms Teather during a consultation leading up to the green paper that they were "frustrated" because staff had an "insufficient understanding" of their conditions or needs. Teachers also said they wanted more specialist training.

There will be more placements in special schools for trainee teachers, a new scholarship programme will fund teachers to study higher level qualifications in SEN and teaching assistants and support staff will also get funding for extra training under the proposals.

Professor Chris Husbands, director of London University's Institute of Education, said the developments were "exciting" and "welcome".

"The Government is right not to move towards specialist initial training in SEN which would create a division between those who work with children who have special needs and those who work with mainstream provision," he said.

There will be new online training for teachers about profound, complex and multiple learning disabilities, as well as autism, dyslexia and behavioural problems.

The Department for Education has also promised to continue to fund training for special educational needs co-ordinators this year.

Special schools are now able to become teaching schools, but many local authorities are also cutting the number of SEN support staff, which will mean a reduction in the amount of specialist outside help available to schools. It is not known yet how much money will be available for the special school placements or scholarships.

Staff in colleges will not miss out on the extra training available, under the green paper plans. DfE officials will work with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Learning and Skills Improvement Service to develop SEN and disability training for them.

Heads will learn about SEN through the reformed National Professional Qualification for Headship and the new "specialist leaders of education" - deputy and assistant heads, will be employed to work across different schools sharing their SEN expertise.

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