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'Too little time' for special needs help

Special needs co-ordinators in primary schools are able to spend only two minutes a week on each pupil with such needs, and their secondary colleagues get four minutes, according to new research.

The study, by Warwick University for the National Union of Teachers, also reveals widespread confusion about the legal status of the code of practice which came into effect in September 1994.

The survey of 2,173 schools - the largest sample questioned on this subject - asked special needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) how they saw their responsibilities and how well they thought the code, which lays down guidelines for identifying and helping children with special needs in mainstream and special schools, is bedding down.

The responses show that many teachers feel desperately oppressed because the increase in responsibility is not matched by an increase in non-contact time, money, or status. Of these, lack of time was seen to be the most important. Most respondents, however, approved of the code in principle.

While this finding agrees broadly with an Office for Standards in Education report published in January, the Warwick survey also found that many teachers regarded the code as statutory and inflexible, and that this was leading to a mechanistic approach, squeezing out more sensitive and unorthodox methods which might be more appropriate for individual pupils.

The code has an unusual status in law. It is provided for by the 1993 Education Act, but not part of it, and schools and local education authorities have a legal duty to "have regard to it" but are not compelled to adhere slavishly to it.

The authors compare teachers' attitude to the code to the early days of assessment and testing, in which teachers engaged in "fervent but unfocused record-keeping . . . because they had not been helped to understand the extent of professional discretion".

The authors urge the Department for Education and Employment and local authorities to draw this to teachers' attention, and suggest revising the code to "emphasise principles, not procedures".

Sixty eight per cent of respondents thought that the non-contact time available to carry out their SENCO role was fairly or completely inadequate, while only 312 primaries and 61 secondaries were planning to recruit extra staff to help with special needs.

A majority of SENCOs in primary schools did not have their extra responsibility reflected by higher pay, and 47 per cent of respondents were "fairly or very" dissatisfied with their educational psychology service.

Some schools felt that the local authority was negating the efforts of school staff to identify pupils needing special help. The code was introduced partly in response to the steep rise in the number of children with special needs statements, which require the authority to provide expensive extra help, and to clarify what the school is expected to provide within its own budget.

Co-ordinators quoted include the cynical: "Teachers will not put forward students with special needs if it entails more work, or reports every few weeks" and the despairing: "SEN workload is so heavy in itself - plus a full-time class. I work harder than all my colleagues and for nothing . . . special needs co-ordinator is an M25 job, going round in congested circles. "

Many teachers complained of isolation and lack of status as a co-ordinator: "We are not a very powerful lobby and most of us are women, which makes us potentially even less powerful." But most were simply concerned that a good idea might founder through lack of will to implement it.

The DFEE is to review the code's implementation in the autumn.

The Implementation of the Code of Practice in Primary and Secondary Schools - A National Survey of Perceptions of Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators, Institute of Education, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL.

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