The Commission on Special Educational Needs, set up by the Conservative Party in July 2005, and chaired by Sir Robert Balchin, published a first interim report on its findings on 2 December 2005. The report is based on a wide range of both oral and written evidence, much of which highlights concerns about the statutory SEN framework and statementing in particular.

Interim Findings

Statementing

– The procedure is considered by most respondents to be too long and too costly and there is considerable unease about the fact that LEAs are both the assessors of children’s needs, paymasters of the funding, often suppliers of the special needs services and also admissions authorities for many schools. Rightly or wrongly, many parents consider that the ‘statement’ is often made to fit the cash available. – The appeals system is thought to be unnecessarily adversarial, expensive and long drawn out. – There is much dissatisfaction amongst parents concerning the paucity of special schools and the unsuitability of many mainstream schools for their children. Many have made the point that their children are being made to suffer difficulties at schools because of the government’s policy of ‘inclusion’. – There is much concern among heads and governors of mainstream schools that, without their consent, their schools may be named on a ‘statement’ and they are then obliged to take a pupil for whom they can offer little or no appropriate provision. – Heads and teachers have also submitted that the presence in mainstream classrooms of large numbers of adult assistants in support of special needs children can distort the education of mainstream pupils. – Parents and teachers have recorded their frustration at the lack of coordination and information sharing amongst the various agencies involved in ‘statementing’ and special needs provision.

– There is also concern that arbitrarily drawn boundaries often pressurise parents into a choice for their children that is inappropriate when there is a more suitable school nearby but in another LEA.

Non-statemented support
The report also notes that many children in mainstream could, gradually, be removed from ‘statemented’ provision if: a) schools are enabled to demand from them the good behaviour without which education cannot take place; b) reading, writing and number work are taught correctly in a structured and intensive way from an early age.

Proposals for change The interim report, if implemented, is believed by the commission to: a) Allow profiles to be created more swiftly and at less cost than ‘statements’. b) Be seen by parents as fairer and more independent because the assessment, the funding and the provision will be supplied by different sources. c) Allow a fast and non-adversarial appeals system. d) Allow a greater choice for parents by making LEA boundaries obsolete for special needs purposes. e) Allow mainstream schools to innovate and develop, if they wish, various kinds of special needs provision. f) Encourage the growth of new special schools.

A further interim report will make recommendations about improving SEN provision in mainstream schools. It will be interesting see if final recommendations are convergent with those made by the Education and Skills Select Committee Inquiry into SEN (see p2) in its report.

Comments on the interim recommendations should be sent to: jmarks@ertnet.demon.co.uk.

Commission recommendations

1 ‘Statements’ should be replaced by a special needs profile (SNP) drawn up by independent accredited profile assessors (educational psychologists and other professionals, possibly operating as consortia). Profiles would be cumulative and subject to regular review. Assessments would be triggered by professionals within the education, health and social services or by a parent with the agreement of one of the former.

2 SNPs would identify, using, as far as is possible, objective criteria, a child’s special needs. They would then allocate the child to one of a number of levels of support (as is done in other countries including the USA, and, in England by the LSC for those of 16+ with special needs). There would be approximately a dozen such levels, the first two of which would cover those pupils not currently ‘statemented’ but requiring special provision in mainstream schools.

3 Each level of support would attract a certain amount of funding which would be provided by a National Funding Agency. The pupil would ‘carry’ these funds with them to a mainstream or special school. Parents would negotiate for a place at the mainstream or special school of their choice, irrespective of the LEA area. Schools would have considerable autonomy concerning how the support funds were spent.

4 A Special Education Needs Standing Commission (SENSC) would be needed with the following functions: a) Urgently to review the provision of special schools in this country and to make any necessary recommendations for its extension (pending such a review there should be a moratorium on the closure of special schools). b) To accredit and supervise the work of profile assessors. c) To advise Ofsted on the inspection of special schools (and of special needs provision in mainstream schools). d) To collect and publish systematic countrywide data on special needs provision and its funding. e) To deal with appeals if an SNP is not issued or the parent considers that the wrong category has been applied. (It will do this by appointing an accredited mediator who will attempt a resolution, if necessary by calling for a second opinion; the mediator’s decision would be binding and the SENSC could, at its discretion, charge a fee for mediation). f) To advise the National Funding Agency annually concerning levels of support and their funding and concerning the provision of new special schools, units in mainstream schools etc.

g) To monitor proposals for the closure or amalgamation of special schools.