The Education Act (1981) established a process of stages of assessment which eventually produced a statement of a child’s special educational needs. This followed the recommendations of the Warnock Report (1978) on special educational needs which had called for an end to the previous system whereby children were diagnosed and officially ‘ascertained’ by their local health authority as belonging to a particular category of handicap. This usually meant their transfer to a special school catering for pupils with that condition.

Moving away from thinking about categories of handicap
Earlier in the seventies, Professor Ron Gulliford’s book Special Educational Needs had introduced a broader concept and criticised the system in which categories pinned single labels on children whose individual needs might be very different from others identified as sharing the same disability.

He argued that while children might share similar sensory, physical or psychological characteristics, their educational needs often varied considerably. Although some pupils would benefit from specialised provision, for others adaptations and additional help could meet their needs without requiring segregation from the mainstream.

What unfortunate labels some of those categories of handicap bore. Designating children as ‘maladjusted’ or ‘educationally subnormal’ would be considered highly derogatory today but then simply reflected the history of these terms in medical diagnosis. Indeed, until 1970, in law children with what would now be termed severe or complex difficulties in learning were deemed ‘mentally handicapped’ and officially ‘unsuitable’ for education and attended junior training centres rather than schools.

Back to a medical perspective?
The present SEN green paper eschews any such negative and contentious language but it does appear to return to a medical perspective of special education. The term SEN is applied in the main to children with conditions which are likely to substantially impair their progress throughout their life. For example, the green paper states that most of its proposed reforms ‘focus on helping families with children who have the most complex support needs, including those with life-limiting long-term conditions, the vast majority of whom have their disability identified before or shortly after their birth.’

The Education, Health and Social Care Plan, which is to replace the statement is intended to provide ‘support from birth to 25 for children and young people who may require a different approach.’ One of the few specific illustrative examples in its executive summary mentions reliance on ‘specialist services or equipment – such as incontinence pads, computer software and wheelchairs.’ This does seem to indicate a primary concern with provision for those with physical and sensory impairments.

Another indication of this preoccupation is reference to work with the health sector and GP consortia on improving joint health and wellbeing strategies. While the proposals for children with more severe and complex difficulties may have merit, the green paper’s emphasis on their needs appears to be at the expense of the broader perception of SEN which developed during the 1980s and 1990s.

Developing SEN provision in mainstream schools
The 1981 Education Act and the departmental circulars, which advised on its implementation, emphasised the view that assessment for a statement identified what additional help was required and consideration as to where this extra provision should only be undertaken once the statement had been made. The Warnock Report did not draw a distinction between special and remedial education but in practice the former was usually seen as largely the province of separate special schools and the latter taking place within mainstream schools.

This distinction became increasingly blurred during the 1980s as the presumption was usually made that extra teaching and resources identified in the statement should be made available if possible within the ordinary school. This resulted in much debate on the concept of integration of special and mainstream schools and pupils. In contrast, the green paper refers to a ‘single school-based SEN category’ for ‘children whose needs exceed what is normally available.’

From stages of assessment to levels of intervention
By the early 1990s,‘remedial teaching’ had been supplanted by ‘support for learning’. Eventually the first SEN Code of Practice in 1994 named and defined the role of special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) as the teacher responsible for helping pupils in mainstream schools who were at one of five stages of assessment.

By 1998 another green paper was proposing a revised Code of Practice. In its very first edition, SENCO Update summarised these proposals as ‘fewer stages and less reliance on statements.’ These were proposals which made clear that there should be no routine expectation of ‘sequential progress to a statement.’ They focused on levels of intervention rather than stages of assessment. The revised Code of Practice (2001) promoted the view that by intervention through School Action and School Action Plus the special needs of most children who did not have severe, long-term or lifelong complex medical or physical needs could be met without the need for a statement.

The present green paper presents SENCOs with a radically changed concept of special education. It proposes to remove what it claims is a ‘ bias towards inclusion.’ It is focused on needs and disabilities which are evident from birth to 25 and it stresses parental choice of school (including special academies and free schools). From an historical perspective, as far as inclusion is concerned, it does look as though the green paper’s proposals for taking special education forward are really harking back to the past!