Parents must be centrally involved in decision-making if the SEN system is to be changed for the better, says Lucy Wilkins

Ever since the 1981 Education Act introduced the concept of ‘inclusive’ schooling, the question of how to best educate children with learning disabilities has been fiercely debated. Some see inclusion – the education of children with learning difficulties in mainstream, rather than in segregated ‘special’ schools – as the root of all problems. Others regard a mainstream education as every child’s right and vigorously campaign for the closure of all special schools.

This debate has become more pressing as the number of children diagnosed with learning difficulties increases. In the last four years alone there has been a 10% rise. Today, roughly one in five pupils are on special educational needs (SEN) registers. A catalogue of failures – the poor achievements of such children, an ill equipped and over-burdened teaching staff, and the alienation of parents frustrated by a complex system – suggest we are not coping with this growing burden.

Parental choice
Yet both sides of the inclusion debate are missing the fundamental point – that it is parents who are best placed to decide how and where their children should be educated. Consequently, it is parental choice, not ‘expert’ opinion that should be driving policy. That the experts themselves are so divided over the issue only serves to underline this. Evidence shows that, counter-intuitive though it may be, pupils with SEN can perform well in all settings, and not at the expense of their non-SEN peers. Research shows that it is the strategies employed and quality of teaching that determines a child’s outcome, not the educational setting.

The focus must therefore be on helping parents get the education they believe to be most appropriate for their child. This requires three key changes, described below.

Good school places
First, more good school places need to be created for children with learning difficulties. To encourage supply, the current guidelines must be relaxed to make it easier to set up new schools and the government should waive the £2 million sponsorship fee for any academy that is prepared to establish a specially resourced SEN unit.

Second, all state-funded schools, including academies, should operate a ‘first come, first served’ admissions system to give the most disadvantaged children – including those with learning difficulties – an even chance of getting into a good school. Unlike the lottery admissions system often proposed, this approach encourages and rewards parental initiative. But unlike the current system, based on residential catchment areas, it rewards the initiative of poor parents every bit as much as rich parents.

Third, parents need consistent and reliable information if they are to make the best decisions for their children. Since 2001, councils have been required by law to set out details of services available to local children with special needs. But a survey carried out by CentreForum found that only 5% of local authorities are in full compliance with the law.

This too needs to change. Every council should, in conjunction with its schools, draw up a map of provision documenting the help children will receive depending on their level of need. Ofsted should inspect local authorities’ SEN responsibilities more closely and two sets of performance tables should be published – one that includes SEN pupils and one excluding them.

Pupils with complex needs
But what of those children whose needs are sufficiently severe to warrant a ‘statement’ and whose parents often face the greatest struggle to get their needs addressed?

Policy must focus on reshaping the statementing system so that parents feel confident their child’s needs are at the centre of the process. Essential to this is removing the task of assessing these children’s needs from local authorities, to reassure parents that the statementing process is impartial and not financially driven.

The statement itself, once issued, should be turned into a personal budget for parents to manage, in cooperation with their child’s school, similar to the system in place in the Netherlands. Those parents who want a direct say over how and where their child is educated should be given the opportunity to do so. Those who do not – or cannot – should continue to have decisions made on their child’s behalf by the relevant authorities.

Finally, councils should be required to fund a statement from the moment it is first applied for via a system of back payments. At the moment, schools – and in some cases parents – are picking up the additional financial cost of teaching children with severe learning difficulties.

School level change
In addition to these measures, greater support is needed at the school level. This must include regular screening in primary school for literacy difficulties. Likewise, a more sophisticated understanding of learning difficulties would help teachers personalise their instruction, which in turn would reduce exclusions and raise attainment. One of the five compulsory days of in-service training should be dedicated to SEN, while secondary schools should have at least one teacher trained in a specialist learning difficulty and clusters of primary schools should also have access to such teachers.

Together these measures will empower parents to take control of their child’s welfare. This is as it should be. Politicians must trust parents. For it is often parents, rather than bureaucrats, who really know best.

Learning the Hard way: A Strategy for Special Educational Needs, is a joint CentreForum and Policy Exchange policy paper written by Lucy Wilkins. Copies of the report can be downloaded from the publications section of the CentreForum website.

CentreForum is an independent, liberal think-tank seeking to develop evidence based, long term policy solutions to the problems facing Britain.

Lucy Wilkins is a researcher with CentreForum and author of the recently published report Learning the Hard Way: A Strategy for Special Educational Needs