Tories care about SEN, but will they make it count?
Both David Cameron and his Education Secretary, Michael Gove, have publicly professed a fascination with the provision of education for children with special needs.
While the stories of Ivan, Mr Cameron's severely disabled son who died last year, and Angela, Mr Gove's deaf sister, are often cited as the impetus for their interest, it is far from clear what impact their high-profile reforms will have on this important sector.
Projections vary wildly. Some experts forecast that hundreds of special schools will convert to academy status and the wholesale emasculation of local education authority support. Others say the changes will only brush the sector's surface, with most heads steering well clear of such changes.
It is clear, however, that Mr Gove wants to imprint his hallmark principle of scrapping red tape on this, arguably the most difficult, complex and emotive element of education policy.
There is, though, a tiny bit of breathing space for the sector. Unlike mainstream primaries and secondaries, special schools will not be able to become academies until 2011 at least. This is in order to give Department for Education civil servants a chance to tackle the complex problem of how to free them from local authority control. For example, they are funded in a different way from other schools - by need, not numbers - and every pupil has been referred by the council.
Even when this process is resolved, Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of the National Association of Special Educational Needs, predicts that few SEN heads will opt for academy status for their schools.
"When headteachers start to look at what it means for them I think they will realise they are better off as they are," Mrs Petersen said.
"The fact is they rely on local authority referrals (for their pupils). What most want is to be at the heart of a cluster of schools, providing specialist services. We hope this will be the conclusion of the Government after the SEN review" (see panel, right).
Even though the first academy special schools are not just around the corner, the possibility of hundreds - or even thousands - of mainstream institutions making the switch could be profound.
Mrs Petersen suggests that mainstream "academies might well be more selective about their students, and by whatever means could not take pupils with special educational needs".
There are other worries, too. In the Government's early days, Mr Gove was forced to make clear that while the structure and funding of local authority education departments was set to be drastically pared back, he would guarantee their SEN budgets. Indeed, he promised that his civil servants would assess the impact on local SEN services before approving new academies.
Despite those reassurances, the Special Education Consortium, a lobby group for the sector, says any increase in the number of academies could jeopardise specialist SEN services because, in reality, their funding comes from the wider schools budget. If more of this money is given to academies and local authorities can keep less, some councils might "be unable to maintain the level of centrally funded services that they currently offer", according to Julie Jennings, the organisation's chair.
Underpinning this argument is the substantial cost of supporting the system. Spending on SEN provision in mainstream schools varies from #163;1,045 per child to #163;1,818. It rose from #163;2.8 billion to #163;4.1 billion between 2002 and 2006.
Many special schools have a range of services provided on site: music therapy, physiotherapy, medical care, speech therapy, occupational therapy and social workers. This happens thanks to the school's close links with local authorities - would it be as easy to organise for a special school standing alone?
A large council can spend up to #163;22 million a year on transport, much of which goes on buses to special schools - children often travel long distances to get to them. Who would foot this bill if the school became a special academy?
Sue Jackson, head of Lee Chapel Primary in Basildon, Essex, says she is interested in converting to academy status, but would not opt out of local authority control if it would harm her SEN pupils. "We do feel our wings are clipped sometimes by the council, but SEN is a deal breaker for us. If it's going to be prejudicial to children who need extra support, or it takes away their funding, then we won't do it," she said.
But for others - even in the SEN sector itself - these reforms are not the sole focus of their worries.
Ron Babbage runs St John's Foundation Special School in Bedford, one of the first to adopt grant-maintained (GM) status in the 1990s and now one of the few with foundation status. He said he would welcome freedom from the national curriculum, and the chance to run courses for older children. But the scrapping of his Building Schools for the Future improvements - to replace spaces for secondary age children built in the era when they were deemed "ineducable" - has made Mr Babbage sceptical.
"We went for GM status because we were not well served by the local authority. But in those days there was a major funding incentive to do that, (but) that doesn't exist any more," he said.
"But we are the kind of school which looks for opportunities. For example, we would love to be a training school - a status not given currently to special schools - so we could have a dual role in teaching children and supporting mainstream teachers."
Despite his interest in the change, Mr Babbage is worried that without major reform to the role of local authorities in SEN provision, special school academies could be left extremely vulnerable.
"If councils still have control over admissions, they could effectively kill any special academies by deciding not to send pupils there," he said.
"Obviously the new Government has not thought this through."
Julie Dyer, who runs Threeways, a special school in Bath, is another head struggling to see the benefits that academy status would bring to children with additional needs.
When the Coalition first came to power, she expressed an interest in becoming an academy, but only to obtain more information on what the switch would entail. But, she says, so far her questions have not been answered.
"There's a feeling among special schools that we don't want to be left behind, which is why many of us wanted to find out more about academies. The only benefit we have found seems to be freedom, but this isn't really a benefit to us because we already have a lot of flexibility in the way we run our schools," Mrs Dyer said.
"Special schools are more pupil focused; we have to be because we are catering for individual needs. Everything is personalised."
Many Threeways pupils attend other local schools as well - and are dual registered - and some join for short periods as "guests".
It is for this reason that she is concerned that one secondary and two primaries in Bath are in the process of becoming academies. She is worried it might affect collaboration between teachers.
"It's important this continues, but an increase in academies dcould lead to a greater role for special schools. With a different role for local authorities we could be commissioned to provide services for other schools and vice versa."
But it seems teachers will have to wait many months for answers. November 12 issue: independent schools
Stop those who shirk SEN responsibilities
Many special schools would welcome the further freedoms academy status brings, but the Government reforms also bring risks.
Many schools may use them as an excuse to opt out of their responsibilities on SEN. For example, they may want to stop admitting "challenging" pupils in case they affect the school's performance.
This will be an ever-present tension as the impact of free schools and academies starts to show. It is important that the Government recognises this and reforms the SEN system accordingly. There must be some kind of regulation of SEN provision in all schools. and ministers should accept that principle.
Rules for academies might be more relaxed, but we have still got to protect the most vulnerable pupils in those schools. The problem is these duties currently lie with local authorities; with the new system of greater school autonomy these duties should be passed to teachers and governors.
This will take years to reform and will require a strong stomach, and perhaps that is the reason why the previous Labour government didn't carry out this change. But it is the best solution while we have these varied types of schools, and Ofsted inspectors could check if these duties are being carried out.
Free schools and academies could have an impact on specialist SEN services. We already have a system where heads have control of most of their funding and buy services from local authorities - how can we make sure academies still provide this support for pupils? The Government needs to make it clear to them that they will be expected to do this.
Braham Norwich is professor of educational psychology and special educational needs, Exeter University
Teather pledges to end parents' battle
Education Secretary Michael Gove asked Lib Dem schools minister Sarah Teather to undertake an inquiry into SEN provision earlier this year.
She has said she wants parents to have a new role as "partners", with families invited to contribute to decision making about the "design and delivery of services".
She has promised parents they will no longer have to "battle" to get the support they think their child needs. Ms Teather has also said she wants all schools to have the same freedoms as academies, but she has admitted special schools will be treated "in a different way".
"Nothing has actually changed in the relationship between local authorities, academies and free schools with regard to special educational needs," Ms Teather has told MPs. "Schools will continue to get the funding that they need, and local authorities will continue to have a very important co-ordinating role."
TreeHouse branched out
The autism charity TreeHouse was formed as a "free" school back in 1997, although its story highlights current concerns.
Parents set up the school, which was first based in a hospital and then a library for two years before occupying temporary buildings for four years.
It took ten years for a permanent building to open; the land was bought from donations. Even today the school relies heavily on fundraising. Pupil funding comes from local authorities, but this does not pay for any extras.
Parent Katharine Dore came up with the idea of TreeHouse after her local authority told her that there was no local provision for her son Toby, who is autistic.
She was put in touch with Karen Edwards by Toby's doctor, and they linked up with other parents. They searched the world for the best teaching techniques to use at TreeHouse before opting for applied behaviour analysis.
Eventually they employed staff and started advising other families on how to set up their own schools. Three years after the school opened, it had 20 pupils.