This article discusses Mary Warnock’s 2005 pamphlet on special educational needs policy, and her call for an urgent review of it. A flurry of political debate took place in both houses of parliament before the summer recess that year

Pre-empting the launch of the pamphlet, David Cameron, shadow education secretary introduced an opposition day debate in the House of Commons on 22 June. The debate focused in the main, on the role of special schools, but also on wider concerns about whether or not a blanket policy of inclusion was working. David Cameron also called for a moratorium on special school closures, arguing that there was an ‘overt closure programme taking place’ which needed stopping immediately. Calls for a moratorium were rejected by the government, most notably by Maria Eagle (parliamentary under-secretary) and in a vote at the end of the debate the Conservative motion was defeated by 349 votes to 176.

Perhaps more significantly, however, Barry Shearman, the former chairman of the Education Select Committee, said that although he thought the idea of a moratorium was a ‘gimmick’, getting the policy balance in relation to inclusion was important, and he hoped that the Education Select Committee would make examining SEN a priority when it was re-established.

House of Lords SEN debate
Following the House of Commons debate ( 22 June) in which the Conservative call for a moratorium on special school closures was rejected, the House of Lords maintained the high level of political interest in the same issues, by holding its own major debate on SEN and inclusion on 14 July. During this debate, Baroness Warnock, reiterating arguments made in her pamphlet Special Educational Needs: A New Look published a fortnight earlier stated that:

‘[W]e have reached a stage where a proper review of everything since the 1970s needs to be undertaken … We cannot get away with dogmatic posturing without knowing something about what we are talking about. That requires facts and research.’

This call for a major review of policy was rejected by Lord Adonis (parliamentary under-secretary of state with specific responsibility for SEN), who, in response to a specific request from Lord Baker of Dorking for an ‘independent and not just an internal departmental review’, said that independent consultants were already undertaking a review in line with the government’s SEN strategy, Removing Barriers to Achievement, but that its scope was not as wide as that called for by either Lord Baker or Baroness Warnock.

Conservative party SEN Commission
On 18 July, just four days after the House of Lords debate, David Cameron raised the political stakes surrounding SEN policy by announcing the formation of the Special Needs Commission (SNC) with a brief to review the provision of special needs in the British education system. The SNC will be chaired by Sir Robert Balchin and aims, according to Mr Cameron ‘to find out what provision we really need to make a difference in the world of SEN’.

Other members of the SNC include: Dr John Marks (Secretary); Dr Andrew Povey, Surrey county councillor; Brian Jones, formerly headteacher of Archbishop Tenison’s School, Kennington; Niels Chapman, headteacher at Whitefields School and Centre, Walthamstow; Hugo Gerrard, solicitor and parent of a child with SEN; and Martin Turner, former chief psychologist at the Dyslexia Institute.

Whether the SNC can do justice to its comprehensive aims remains to be seen, and it will certainly be a major challenge to make good sense of changes in the British education system arising from political devolution.

House of Commons Committee of Inquiry
On 20 July, two days after the Conservative party launched the SNC, Barry Shearman, the Labour MP for Huddersfield announced that a cross-party House of Commons select committee would, in fact, be carrying out an SEN inquiry in the autumn (see article below for details), and one with a much broader remit than that outlined in Removing Barriers to Achievement. The setting up of this inquiry suggests that the government has reflected further on issues raised by Baroness Warnock, and by members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords in summer debates. Whether the setting up of the inquiry indicates a political retreat by the secretary of state for education and skills, Ruth Kelly, and her colleagues is not clear. What is clear though, is that Barry Shearman has shown a strong sense of purpose in ensuring that an inquiry into SEN policy will take place, and that its remit is potentially wide ranging.

It is particularly pleasing to see that the committee will not simply be charged with discussing the role of special schools. With this in mind, it is hoped that, among many issues that it will consider, the committee will examine ways in which the work of SENCOs can be better understood, managed and supported at school, local authority and national levels.