Vive la difference
expertise in special needs, reports Karen Thornton
THERE are now as many types of special needs service as there are local authorities, says a new report.
The 154-page study from the National Foundation for Educational Research looks at how difference has flourished as schools have been given more control over their spending. It reveals how schools in some areas have developed independent expertise, while others still rely heavily on local authority specialists.
The report - Impact of Delegation on LEA Support Services for Special Educational Needs - draws on questionnaires from the 104 English and Welsh education authorities, and case studies of five authorities. It found no one service alike - in funding, organisation, management, practices, and relationships with schools.
Most authorities said they did now delegate cash for children with less serious needs to schools, concentrating their own efforts on children with more acute needs ("stage three" or above in the special needs code of practice). But some authorities delegated all their support funding to schools, while others delegated none at all.
All but one of the 104 authorities had a support service, and services were generally available throughout an authority and for most types of need.
The report notes that schools with established good practice were seen to make the best use of their delegated funding. Some had developed staff expertise to levels which, a few years ago, would only have been available in a specialist support service. These schools tended to draw on external support services to "plug the gaps" for less common needs, such as sensory impairment.
However, delegation left authorities less able to influence schools with poorer practice, and to monitor the quality of classroom support. There were occasional reports of schools resisting support for pupils heading for exclusion. Respondents also said some schools were neglecting pupils who were unlikely - even with additional support - to help the school improve its league table scores.
Schools on the other hand, complained that support was sometimes inappropriate, told teachers what they already knew, or was late or erratic. In one authority, schools felt tricked after promised support for special needs pupils in mainstream classes failed to materialise.
Just under half of education authorities had "service level agreements" with schools, defining the services schools should expect. But again these varied hugely. The report's authors say evidence from the case studies suggests service level agreements give schools more of a say in the support they receive - but make it harder for authorities to plan strategically.
Some authorities accused schools of "playing the system" to boost their funding - for example, by inflating the needs of children, to trigger additional support. One authority found that its primaries were syphoning off between 10 and 15 per cent of money earmarked for special needs pupils for other uses, such as employing extra staff to reduce class sizes.
Overall, authors Felicity
Fletcher-Campbell and Mairi Ann Cullen conclude that delegation of budgets asn't led to the demise of support services - but it has affected them in different ways.
They identify several key issues for authorities, schools, and the Government. Top of the list for LEAs is improving support staff training and development, which is labelled "neglected, unsystematic and inaccessible". They must also ensure that all schools receive the right quality of service.
What the report makes clear is that schools are becoming increasingly confident about their ability to cope with the common special needs. LEA support services will have to offer "tailor-made" provision and access to "cutting-edge expertise" if they are to give what schools they want and hence guarantee their own survival.
Local authorities also need to look at how support for special needs pupils is being funded. The report uncovered cases of different teachers supporting pupils with similar needs in the same school - without ever meeting up or working together. This was sometimes because of time-
tabling problems, but also because funding came into the school from various sources.
Schools need to handle special needs pupils sensitively, and be careful not to stigmatise them. Support can be "both a confusing and an uncomfortable experience for pupils," notes the report - especially if it doesn't fit in with playground culture.
Support work needs to be integrated into the mainstream curriculum. And partnership with parents needs to be sustained beyond the initial offer of special needs support.
The authors note that the Government wants to maximise the number of special needs children in mainstream education. But, they say, there is a lack of evidence about the type of service that best achieves this aim. One crucial issue is whether it should be embedded in schools, or injected periodically by outside experts. What is clear however, say the authors, is that the delegation of funding to schools makes it harder for authorities to control them and "steer" them towards greater inclusion.
They also say that the drive for higher standards can make schools reluctant to take on special needs pupils. One major problem is that there are few ways of measuring the improvements made by pupils with learning difficulties; nor, in a league-table culture, are there ways of publicly acknowledging the progress these pupils have made.
"Impact of Delegation on LEA Support Services for Special Educational Needs", by Felicity Fletcher-Campbell and Mairi Ann Cullen, National Foundation for Educational Research, price pound;10.75, tel: 01753 747281.
SPECIAL NEEDS: KEY ISSUES TO BE ADDRESSED
FOR LOCAL AUTHORITIES
* Improve training for support staff
* Ensure services are focused on improving pupil achievement
* Improved senior management support for special needs co-ordinators
* Integrate support work into the curriculum
* Tailor support services to support inclusion
* Set progress measures for pupils with learning difficulties
* Consider additional support for disaffected pupils
New role: LEAs are increasingly focusing on more acute needs 'Schools are increasingly confident in their
ability to cope with common special needs'