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9 October 2000

Children who are not so special after all

New Labour wants social inclusion, but seems reluctant to fund special needs education. Is this not

By Judy Hirst

They used to be called handicapped, thick, retarded. In these more enlightened times, we talk about children with learning difficulties, disabilities and other special needs. Whatever the terminology, there are a lot of them about.

One in five school-age children – almost one in two in some local authorities – receives special needs education. More than 3 per cent have a legally binding “statement”, which entitles them to services such as one-to-one assistance or specially adapted equipment. Between one-fifth and one-third of local education budgets is spent on servicing special needs.

The government is in a quandary. Its social inclusion agenda demands the fullest possible integration of special needs children into mainstream schools. But schools which are trying to claw their way up the examination league tables find that special needs pupils hold them back. In schools at the top of GCSE tables, an average of about 8 per cent of the pupils have special needs, against 33 per cent in schools at the bottom.

The obvious answer is to provide extra resources for special needs children and to introduce proper pay and training for the largely unqualified learning support assistants who subsist on less than £8,000 a year. But things seem to be moving the other way. Under pressure from cash-strapped local education authorities, the government has been trying to restrict the number of statements of special educational need – the main mechanism by which schools and parents get hold of extra funding for their children.

In 1997, a Coopers & Lybrand report, commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment, had predicted a special needs “expenditure time bomb”. A green paper then proposed fewer and less specific statements, with a view to phasing them out. In the face of outcry from parents’ organisations, ministers backed off, giving assurances that children’s legal entitlements were not at risk. But according to special needs groups, that threat has been resurrected in a new form.

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In July, as schools were going on holiday, the department sent out for consultation a new code of practice on special needs. Whereas the old code required statements to “specify” special needs provision, the new one demands only that they be “set out”. The distinction may seem obscure, even theological. But, according to John Wright of the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice, the vaguer term will allow education authorities to avoid committing themselves to anything much.

For parents battling to get basic provision for their children’s needs, precision matters. Take Martin, an 11-year-old boy with speech and language problems, dyslexia and other learning difficulties. His parents fought tooth and nail, repeatedly taking his case to appeal, to secure a statement for him from his local authority. But because the wording on it was too vague, he ended up sharing his periods of special tuition with a child whose main problem was behavioural and whose needs were therefore entirely different. The parents eventually got one-to-one tuition for Martin, but they had to resume the battle when he moved to secondary school.

Nor do children with more easily identifiable needs get the right support without a struggle. Jamie, a nine-year-old boy who suffers from Down’s syndrome, was told that he could not stay at his primary school because the local authority had failed to specify the number of hours it would fund for him. His mother fought the case successfully at a tribunal, only to be told that the authority had no speech therapists for him. She found one privately, and forced the local authority to cough up.

Few parents have the time, money or emotional resources to go through such torment. Yet the practice of leaving statements vague and open-ended is widespread, says Peter Farrell, a professor of special needs and educational psychology at the University of Manchester. Most authorities are wary of being too explicit because they do not want to be tied down legally, especially in an increasingly litigious climate. A recent law lords ruling, which held a local authority responsible for failing to educate a dyslexic pupil adequately, has added to these fears.

Now the Department for Education appears to be doing local authorities a favour by giving them the green light to make statements even more loosely worded. Furthermore, authorities are being encouraged to delegate as much of their education budgets as possible to individual schools – so that heads and governors, instead of town hall officials, decide how much is spent on what. The new code proposes that, where special needs funds are delegated to schools, they need not be earmarked for specified purposes. So how, in practice, will this non-specified, non-earmarked money be used? John Fowler, the deputy head of education at the Local Government Association, says there will be a temptation for schools to spend it on smaller classes, or on high achievers who can help bump up league table results. The theory is that “front-loading” the resources previously used for statementing will give special needs children a better deal in the end. Cutting back on the bureaucracy of statementing and the cost of tribunals, it is said, will release more money into schools and allow them more flexibility. The probable reality, however, is that more children, such as Martin, will have to share their special teaching time with children who have quite different problems.

The latest batch of Ofsted reports shows that most local authorities are weak when it comes to monitoring special needs provision. Many special needs experts predict worse to come, as education authorities are dismantled and schools lose their access to expertise and training. With schools becoming ever more competitive (and, therefore, more anxious to recruit children who will do well in exams), and with the government dragging its feet on disability discrimination legislation, the danger is that we drift into a new form of segregation: sink schools for the special needs children, and all the various selective and specialist schools for the rest.

The unspoken assumption behind the government’s drive to cut back – and ultimately get rid of – special needs statements is that many of them are being sought unnecessarily. Government advisers on special needs say privately that it is all a bit of a wheeze by schools to get their hands on extra funding, and that this explains the rise in the proportion of pupils who are statemented from 1.84 per cent in 1989 to 3 per cent in 1999.

John Marks, a former Conservative government education adviser, has made explicit, in a paper for the Centre for Policy Studies, what others only whisper. The overwhelming majority of special needs pupils, he argues, are in reality the victims of poor teaching – specifically, non-phonic teaching of reading. Moreover, schools have a perverse incentive to see children fail because, if they fail badly enough, the school gets a pot of gold at the end.

Leaving aside Marks’s particular pedagogic views, he may have a point. Undoubtedly, there are pressures on schools to blame their special needs intake, not themselves, for poor league table results – after all, it looks better for the inspectors. And yes, it is not unknown, given the funding crisis in many areas, for schools to pursue statements to pull in more funds. But by and large, argues John Fowler, we are not talking about an elaborate scam. There are more pupils on special needs registers because there is more awareness and understanding about what is holding them back.

The children with Down’s, autism or hearing and sight impairments have always been recognised; in years gone by, they would have automatically ended up, like David Blunkett, in a special school. But now people also recognise such conditions as dyslexia and dyspraxia, attention deficit and other behavioural disorders, Asperger’s and other autistic spectrum conditions. In the past, these children were written off as failures and troublemakers; they often ended up in prison or on the streets.

Curiously, there is a convergence between the views of ardent advocates and opponents of inclusion when it comes to getting rid of the “label” of special needs and the paraphernalia of statementing. The former argue against the children being stigmatised; the latter, such as Marks, don’t believe most of them have special needs at all – and that the “real” ones might be better off in special schools. As Marks points out, parents have recently demonstrated in support of special schools threatened by closure.

Running throughout this heated debate, says Peter Farrell, there is a basic confusion about what we mean by inclusion. “Social inclusion, as equal members of society, is something most people would support. But this is not necessarily the same thing as educational inclusion. For very disabled kids, with minimal communication skills and demanding physical needs, some degree of separation may be more appropriate – even a precondition for social integration.”

What really matters is not so much where special needs children receive their education – in a mainstream classroom, a learning support unit, or occasionally a special school – but whether someone, somewhere, is willing to provide what is needed for an equal chance in life. Judging by the government’s current manoeuvrings – and despite the change in rhetoric since the bad old days – these children are not considered so special after all.