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Wise men or blind mice?

The inspectors,the Orders, and the Code: will the policy makers' changes result in chaos or cohesion for special needs? Report by Margaret Peter.

Last September brought the Code of Practice. Next September launches the revised Orders for the national curriculum. In a year's time a new framework for the inspection of schools begins. Do the three together spell chaos or cohesion for pupils with special educational needs?

Two or three years ago "chaos" would have been the predictable reply - not so in 1995. Having suffered the slings and arrows of outraged teachers since the invasion of the 1988 Education Act, politicians, civil servants and other officials have begun to get their act together on special educational needs. The Department for Education, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education have sat on each other's committees, discussed each other's policies and checked each other's draft legislation and guidance. The outcome, if not as seamless as a body stocking, seems so far to be free from glaring splits.

The consistency between the DFE's Code of Practice for the identification and assessment of special educational needs and SCAA's revised Orders for the national curriculum and its assessment shows itself in at least three ways: curricular access, differentiation and the voice of the child.

The Code supports the access of children with disabilities and learning difficulties to the national curriculum and to the broader and balanced curriculum in which it is set. It aims at identifying difficulties early on, responding quickly and preventing access turning into exit. The revised Orders uncouple the previous statutory link between pupils' ages and key stage levels: pupils can work at any level of the national curriculum at any age in order to progress without the need for a statement of special educational needs or the modifying of an existing one. Access statements which introduce each new subject Order also stress appropriate provision for pupils with sensory, physical and communication difficulties.

"Teachers should no longer feel that national curriculum requirements are a constraint", according to Chris Stevens, SCAA's professional officer for special educational needs, who contributes to the first series of units in the Schools' SEN Policies Pack published last week by the Council for Disabled Children and the Special Educational Needs Joint Initiative on Training (SENJIT) at the Institute of Education, London University. He says: "Instead they should seize the opportunities provided by the Code of Practice and use the essentially complementary pieces of legislation to ensure that all pupils with special educational needs receive their entitlement to a balanced and broadly based curriculum."

The need to differentiate teaching to meet individual needs is a message which comes out clearly from the Code, with its school-based assessment and individual education plans. SCAA's revised Orders, allowing pupils to work at any level at any age, strengthen the thrust towards greater differentiation in the classroom. To ensure that schools meet individual needs, closer working links will be needed between special needs co-ordinators, who have major duties under the Code, and subject co-ordinators and department heads, who will be translating the revised Orders into classroom practice, as Nick Peacey of SENJIT points out.

In both the Code and the new Orders the child's voice can be heard. The Code sees pupils as expressing their views and wishes at all five stages of their assessment for special educational needs, in the annual reviews of statements and at 14-plus when a transition plan is drawn up for their move into adult life. The subject Orders for the revised national curriculum follow a similar line, with more emphasis on pupil involvement than in the past. Children are encouraged, for instance, to review and evaluate their own work in subjects like English and design and technology, a trend noted by Judy Sebba of the Cambridge Institute of Education.

In contrast, the importance of the parents' role, which characterises the Code, gets only one paragraph in Dearing's final report on revising the national curriculum Orders. Schools are urged to "work closely with parents of children with statements when defining individual curriculum content which addresses breadth, balance and special educational needs". Parents of children whose special educational needs are not statemented may also have knowledge and views worth heeding on their children's ways of learning and on curriculum choice when it widens at key stage 4.

Where the Code and the revised Orders diverge is not so much in policy aims as in likely practice. However often tick boxes have been abused - verbally or otherwise - the statements of attainment have been a prop for many teachers: for teaching-to-test and for using as a ready made system of progression and assessment. Now that, officially, the revised Orders have buried the statements of attainment, programmes of study are to be the basis from which all national curriculum work in the classroom springs. But at stage 1 of the Code and in the individual education plans for children with special educational needs at stages 2 and 3, national curriculum attainments and the targets to be achieved are crucial information required about children considered to have special needs.

Will teachers be able and willing to use their own initiative to develop new criteria for assessment and progression as SCAA hopes or will some of them continue to rely on off-the-peg statements of attainment "dressed up in different clothes", as one school head said recently? Until the findings of SCAA's survey of ways in which small steps of progress within national curriculum levels can be assessed and recorded reach schools in the autumn and next spring and until any further guidance is forthcoming, many schools may continue to use statements of attainment in disguise.

In other ways, too, the Code and the revised national curriculum pull in different directions. All references to methods of teaching have been removed from the new Orders while, in contrast, the Code repeatedly refers to the need to vary classroom work to meet individual needs and in chapter three gives brief examples of possible teaching approaches.

Emotional and behavioural difficulties are another point of difference. In the section of the Code summarising types of needs, emotional and behavioural difficulties form the longest entry. In contrast, the access statements for learning difficulties which head each subject Order for the national curriculum omit any reference to pupils with such problems.

Other questions about the interface between the Code and the curriculum Orders will not be answered overnight. Will the "freed time" which, SCAA claims, the slimmed down Orders make available work to the advantage of the Code? Will special needs co-ordinators, who usually teach national curriculum subjects too, have more time to meet the extra demands being made on them at the three stages of school-based assessment? Or will the reduction in the statutory curriculum content jeopardise its breadth and balance, encouraging special schools to regress to a narrow, basics-dominated curriculum and halting rising expectations of what pupils with learning difficulties can achieve?

How OFSTED's revised framework for inspection will dovetail into the Code and the revised Orders remains to be seen. The indication that special educational needs will no longer be a separate heading in the inspection framework but will be "more centrally" integrated into it raises misgivings about a loss of emphasis and diminishing focus. Consultations on revising the framework for inspection ended last month and the new inspection materials will not be published until the autumn.

OFSTED has welcomed the increased flexibility in the national curriculum for pupils with special educational needs and the procedures proposed in the Code. However, the guidance given to registered inspectors monitoring schools' responses to the Code is to be "cascaded" down to team members and lay inspectors. The poetic imagery is appealing but cascades can slow down to a dribble. The extent to which inspection teams are looking at how well schools deal with the procedures in the Code is unclear. In addition, the disappearance of statements of attainment from the national curriculum may have removed a useful prop for assessment from inspectors as well as from schools.

Whether the changes being made by policy makers at the DFE, SCAA and OFSTED bring chaos or cohesion to the education of children with special educational needs will become clear in two or three years. Three Wise Men or three blind mice? The schools will judge.

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