Following the government's rejection of the recommendation that the link between assessment of children's SEN and funding for their provision be broken, John Wright discusses the reaction of the select committee who proposed the change
In 2006, the House of Commons Select Committee recommended that ‘the link must be broken between assessment and funding of provision’, having concluded that ‘there is an inbuilt conflict of interest in that it is the duty of the local authority both to assess the needs of the child and to arrange provision to meet those needs, and all within a limited resource.’1 The Committee had reached this view after hearing evidence, mainly from parents’ organisations, that professional reports and statements often prescribed provision on the basis of cost rather than children’s needs (as required by law).
The government at first denied the need for change but subsequently agreed to consider whatever practical suggestions the committee might come up with to achieve ‘separation’ (short of creating a new quango). Last year, the committee provided practical options*, as asked, all of which the government has now rejected, on the flimsiest of grounds.
New thinking about commissioning
The Committee’s first option was that local authorities or children’s trusts could commission assessments, setting specifications, tendering for services and performance managing the subsequent contracts. The government reject this on the grounds that it is not ‘in the best interests of the child, as those providing the advice will not have had continuing contact’. Certainly, in terms of educational advice it is not in children’s best interests, nor does it make sense to go to strangers when the professionals in daily contact with a child are able to provide information on their needs. But with regard to educational psychologists, the government’s case is difficult to sustain. In the main local authority psychologists do not have ‘continuing contact’ with the children they are called on to assess and they, quite properly, rely heavily on the written reports and opinions of teachers and LSAs who do have close contact with a child. It would therefore be perfectly feasible for educational advice to continue to be locally collected but psychological advice to be commissioned from psychologists not employed by the authority. This option is by no means against ‘the best interests of the child’, as government claims.
Option two was that schools could commission assessments, and have the necessary funding added to their budgets; or that funding for SEN could become entirely the responsibility of schools, with assessments remaining the responsibility of local authorities. The government’s objection to the first wing of this option is that ‘Schools would vary widely in their capacity and their capabilities to undertake these assessments and there would be a danger that this would increase the “post code lottery” of provision’. But there’s a sleight-of-hand at work here, for the Committee’s actual proposal** was that schools could commission assessments, not undertake them. The objection to the second wing of the suggestion is that it ‘raises the risk that the child will be assessed for provision which schools say they cannot fund from delegated resources, resulting in the parents being caught in a dispute between the local authority and the school.’ Yet this is exactly what happens now when a headteacher makes the request for statutory assessment, or provides evidence supporting a parent’s request, and the authority says ‘No!’ More generally, the risk of parents being caught between differing professional opinions is inherent in any system of assessment based on multi-professional input. The government’s objection is facile.
Changing funding for psychologists
Option three was that education psychologists (by general agreement the main players in assessment) could be distanced from local authorities and trusts by being directly funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families or by consortia of authorities. The government’s opposition to this rests mainly on the view that ‘any call to make educational psychology services more independent… call(s) into question the way local authority educational psychologists are carrying out their role’. For support, they quote the Association of Educational Psychologists as saying the proposal ‘questions the integrity of the professionals working to meet the needs of children and young people.’ So it appears that Option three is struck down on the basis that it, rudely, implies that professionals could ever be anything other than totally impervious and resistant to pressure from their employers. In which case, if pleasantry to professionals is their priority, you have to wonder why the government deigned to consider the Committee’s recommendation for separation in the first place.
But then we have an about turn, with government seemingly accepting that there is a problem with the censuring of professional reports by local authorities but claiming that they have already addressed it and quoting from paragraph 7:79 of the Code of Practice to prove it: ‘Those giving advice may comment on the amount of provision they consider appropriate. Thus LEAs should not have blanket policies that prevent those giving advice from commenting on the amount of provision they consider a child requires.’ Presumably as a sop to the committee, the government announced that DCSF will write further, non-statutory, guidance to ‘remind local authorities that educational psychologists must be allowed to exercise their professional judgement freely’. But either there is a problem with psychologists’ reports, or there isn’t. And if there is a problem, despite the statutory guidance in the Code of Practice, what will further non-statutory (ie weaker) guidance achieve?
In addition to rejecting the recommendation of ‘separation’, the government response includes a comment on the other issue that had worried the Committee: the lack of ring-fencing of money delegated to schools for SEN (see ‘Dangers of delegation’, Special Children, issue 177). Again the government adopts the tactic of referring defensively to already published guidance which should, but plainly doesn’t, help (The Management of SEN Expenditure, 2004), then tag on the comment: ‘It is for the schools themselves to decide how to use all the funding available to them to meet all of their duties, including their duty to use their best endeavours to make the special educational provision a child’s learning difficulties call for.’ Which, as Barry Sheerman and his Committee are aware from the evidence they received of delegated funds disappearing after the guidance had come into force, is a statement of the problem, not of any solution.
More than just disappointment
Barry Sheerman has expressed ‘disappointment’***, but surely he and the whole committee must be furious at the paucity of logic and dearth of concern revealed by the government’s arguments. It’s not necessary to agree with all of the committee’s suggestions to sympathise. You can almost hear the instruction coming down from the political master to the civil servants: ‘Listen up guys! We need a reply for Barry—but don’t go spending longer than 10 minutes on it. Right!’ The Committee must wonder why they bothered—as must the many organisations and individuals who spent many hours providing it with written and oral evidence.
What happens now?
For the record, the DCSF stresses its concern about parental anxiety and lack of parental confidence in the SEN system, and uses its response to the Committee to announce the setting-up of ‘a group of experts, under the chairmanship of Brian Lamb [chair of the Special Educational Consortium, described as ‘a broad consortium of voluntary and local government organisations and professional associations’] to investigate the most effective ways of increasing parental confidence.’ But, as I argued in Special Children 177, the real damage when schools mis-spend SEN funding, when local authorities gag professionals and when statements fail to specify provision is that children do not receive the help they need and to which the law entitles them. This is at the root of parents’ lack of confidence and until the very real problems in the system are tackled, it is in children’s best interests that their parents remain anxious. I am certain that this will also be Brian Lamb’s perspective as chair of the SEC, which, after all, operates under the auspices of the National Children’s Bureau. But it has to be noted that the government is not actually asking the SEC, which is independent, to establish this further committee. The government themselves will pick the members. Brian Lamb will have to be on his guard here to ensure that he and his link with SEC are not used to camouflage the real status of this committee.
Barry Sheerman describes the government response to his Committee’s recommendation as a ‘missed opportunity’ for the government. The real tragedy is that it translates into missed educational opportunities for thousands of children with special educational needs.
*Special Educational Needs. House of Commons Education and Skills Committee. The Stationery Office. 2006
**Special Educational Needs: Assessment and Funding: Government Response to the Tenth Report from the Education and Skills Committee, Session 2006-07. Second Special Report of Session 2007-08. House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee
***Government response to special needs report ‘missed opportunity’ say MPs. Committee Press statement. John Wright is a former director of the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (IPSEA), for which he continues to do voluntary work.
He is writing here in an individual capacity.