The House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee undertook a major review of special education in 2005-2006 and published a report that asked the government to clarify its policy on inclusive education. This article summarises the questions that the Select Committee asked, outlines the government response to these, and provides a brief analysis of this response.
In its report on Special Educational Needs (1), the Education and Skills Select Committee expressed concern about what the government meant when it used the term inclusion in relation to education policy, and what the implications of its views on inclusion were for local authorities, schools, and for parents of children with special educational needs. This concern was expressed as follows:
The Government’s changing definition of inclusion is causing confusion. If it is going to continue to use this term in key policy documents such as the SEN Strategy, the Government should work harder to define exactly what it means by inclusion. (p106, para 16)
Furthermore, the report indicated that the committee felt that the government ‘seemed’ to be changing its policy and that this caused major difficulties because this revised policy was not reflected in legislation or its accompanying guidance.
The most generous reading of the evidence is that the Government is moving forward towards seeking a ‘flexible continuum of provision’ being available in all local authorities to meet the needs of all children, including those with SEN, but this is not the basis for the approach outlined in SENDA 2001, the SEN Code of Practice 2001, or the 2004 SEN Strategy. This should be put right. (p106, para 21)
The emphasis here on a flexible continuum of provision is also important (2) and has significant ramifications as the Select Committee’s report makes clear.
The Government should be up-front about its change of direction on SEN policy and the inclusion agenda, if this is indeed the case, and should reflect this in updated statutory and non-statutory guidance to the sector. (pp106-107, para 23)
Inclusion: the government’s view
The government response to the Select Committee’s report included a commentary on the direction of its inclusion policy stating that it did not intend to review or revise its approach, arguing instead that it was very much on the right track. (3)
The present statutory framework provides for children with statements of SEN to be taught in mainstream schools where this is what their parents want and it is compatible with the efficient education of other children. It provides for parents to seek a special school and to have their preference considered according to the same criteria as a preference for a mainstream school. The Government has no plans to change this policy and believes it is the right way forward. (p26, para 28)
To those familiar with ‘policy-speak’ this statement might make good sense, but to parents seeking an appropriate placement for a child with special educational needs terms like compatibility, efficiency and preference, might not be so meaningful and would surely not win a Crystal Mark from the Plain English Campaign (www.plainenglish.co.uk).
A commitment to maintaining a flexible continuum of provision is referred to in the next paragraph of the government response:
We have made clear that we want local authorities and schools to work together to build provision in mainstream schools so that over time a mainstream place is a viable option for all parents who wish their children to be taught in such a setting. But at the same time, as made clear in Removing Barriers to Achievement, the Government sees a vital and continuing role for special schools as part of an inclusive education system, meeting children’s needs directly and working in much closer partnership with mainstream schools to build expertise throughout the system. (p26, para 30)
The message here is mixed and does nothing to allay the fears of the Select Committee about the muddled presentation of policy to education professionals and parents. Nor does it indicate how a mixed economy of provision can be maintained financially. Mixed messages are presented again in a statement about responsibilities for provision.
The Government believes that it is for local authorities to decide on the precise pattern of local provision to meet the needs of children and parents in their localities, whose interests must be paramount. We do not believe that these interests are better served by Whitehall determining the precise pattern of provision in each locality of the country. (p26, para 30)
Here we see the government being let off the hook with regard to shaping policy and provision. We also see that the needs and interests of children and their parents are considered to be key drivers determining what local provision should be in place but the actual responsibility for this lies with local authorities. Does this mean that local authorities can do what they want and override the needs and interests of others? Not quite it seems. The government response states that:
We will, however, produce clear guidelines, which local authorities should take account of when proposing to change the local organisation of provision for children with special educational needs. This will include advice on the factors to be taken into account in closing and opening provision, including special schools. (p26, para 31)
This seem very sensible, but, and it is a big but, many local authorities either have, or are in the process of reorganising their SEN provision. Clear guidelines will be of little use retrospectively.
1. House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee (2006) Special Educational Needs, Third Report of Session 2005-06, Volume 1. HC 478-1. London: The Stationery Office.
2. The Select Committee stressed the importance of this point, noting that Lord Adonis (minister responsible for special educational needs), in his evidence to the committee was unequivocal in stating that he would be content if, as the result of local authority decisions, the ‘current roughly static position of special schools’ continues. (Special Educational Needs, pp25-26, paras 77-79).
3. Government Response to the Select Committee Report on Special Educational Needs (October 2006) is published by TSO (The Stationery Office) and costs £12.50. www.tsoshop.co.uk. The response can also be downloaded from Teachernet at: www.teachernet.gov.uk/news/?id=1159. The paragraphs referred to in this article can be found in Section 3: Priorities for Action 2006-2009 (pp25-26, paras 28-31).