(This article was first published on the Progress website on 17th December 2009 under the title “The government needs to take a more progressive approach in their provision for special educational needs”)
17 December 2009
Yesterday saw the release of the Report of the Lamb Inquiry into Special Educational Needs & Parental Confidence, from the team led by Brian Lamb; and was met with a speedy response from secretary of state Ed Balls outlining what had already been done in response to earlier interim submissions, announcing a number of new initiatives and promising a full implementation plan in the new year.
As head of a special school for children with Severe Learning Difficulties, Autism, and Profound and Multiple learning difficulties this report clearly is of interest to me and my school. This article sets out to describe my initial reactions to the report – please remember that I’m very much concentrating on special school provision – that’s what I do! Don’t forget though that most children with special educational needs will quite rightly be educated in mainstream schools – and the Lamb report’s recommendations are largely about those people as well as special school students.
So what do I think?
Well it seems fairly clear that this report is not – yet- any blue print for massive change in special needs provision in the way that the 1978 Warnock Report prepared the way for the special education system which by and large still stands today. It contains 51 recommendations for improving parental confidence and provision for special educational needs – all of which I’d say, reflect good practice and common sense rather than any radical change of direction. Which is of course in many ways what one would hope – I feel that the England & Wales education system, with respect to children with special educational needs, compares favourably with most other countries. I don’t think anyone would argue that it is perfect though.
The immediate responses that Ed Balls makes are similarly worthy – with headline actions of setting up of a parent helpline, a strengthening of parent partnership arrangements, and funding for the Local Government Ombudsman to take on parental complaints about special educational needs. I’m certain that all these measures, and the others that the secretary of state outlines constitute improvements, and that they are necessary – but they don’t fundamentally challenge the nature of the services that we have now.
To be fair to Mr Lamb, the report does examine ‘alternative national models’ of provision for special educational needs, paying particular emphasis on the system in place in Scotland. However I hope that the government will take a more progressive approach in their implementation plan for this report.
I’d like to see four things:
First let’s re-introduce specialist initial teacher training courses which allow teachers to train to teach children with special educational needs either exclusively or the majority of the time. Teachers in special schools, and special needs teachers in mainstream schools are at the moment generally mainstream teachers – and need a great deal of training to enable them to take on the complexities of special education. There are others – myself included – who trained specifically to teach children with, say, severe learning difficulties – and have never taught in a mainstream school. None of these courses have existed since the late 80s. It would be a relatively quick win to re-introduce them – and have the side effect of ensuring a continued academic base to generate new theory and research in special education.
Next, let’s sort out the Special Needs Tribunal system – clearly the report finds fault with it. It’s one of the most difficult processes a parent ever goes through; an adversarial legal process which pits beleaguered parents against the schools & authorities that are best placed to offer them help and advice. It’s a scary process for many parents, which could be replaced with a process which emphasises discussion, conciliation, and arbitration between families and local authorities – and where a legal judgement is required, it should be based on an inquisitorial model.
Thirdly the tensions within that system could be eased by moving financial responsibility for meeting ‘high cost’ special needs away from individual authorities and aggregating the costs across regions – or nationally – thus removing the strong financial disincentive for LA’s to make expensive out-borough placements. Such placements can see a hugely disproportionate percentage of local authority SEN budgets being spent on a tiny handful of students. This leaves LA officers in the difficult position of trying to meet pupil need, and parent demand, whilst knowing that certain provisions will take them way, way over budget.
Currently this is a ‘danger zone’ for the most difficult drawn-out cases – with often the most eloquent (and occasionally well off) parents succeeding in securing placements – when less learned parents whose children sometimes have a more valid claim to highly specialist placements, often miss out – I’d say this is particularly true for certain ethnic groups – in my own experience, Bangladeshi families in particular often get rolled-over by the frightening officialdom in Local Authorities.
By removing the financial difficulties for authorities and increasing the pressure to consult with parents it would seem likely that such placements could be made more soundly, based on need rather than financial considerations. This would also lead to an increase in the responsiveness of LA provision to parental views – and indirectly educate parents to the high degree of quality provided by community special schools and mainstream schools – many opinions are not currently based on a full evaluation. In this way I think we’d find a higher demand for Local Authority provision – and a decrease in demand for the more expensive independent sector provision.
Clearly this is an issue which specifically affects the special school end of the spectrum – but the principles for tribunals regarding statements as opposed to placements, which mainstream pupils are far more likely to encounter, are broadly the same.
Finally – in the longer term, and on a more radical note – I’d like to see the government looking at the way in which the independent and non-maintained sector provisions for special educational needs are funded and engaged by the state system. Currently the provisions are rather separate – and funding tends to be on a per pupil ‘bums on seats’ basis. It would make for a far more efficient and effective system if payment mechanisms could be on a ‘per service’ basis – with the independent schools and organisations effectively becoming third party providers within the state system – in a not dissimilar way to many health service provisions.
We are already paying these organisations to do this – but the education authorities have little direct influence over the provision made – it’s a case of just handing over the fees. This would of course pave the way for new modes of governance for both those schools and for existing state specialist provision – which should be explored. Co-operative trusts running special schools perhaps? An Academy for Learning Difficulties? These sound like fertile areas to explore.
The most special of ‘special needs’ are only met by imaginative solutions and lateral thinking. Often the straitjacket imposed by traditional school models actually impede our efforts. Many families for instance dread the long holiday in the summer – and children often regress during that time. We also spend huge amounts providing respite services many of which could be provided by schools with just a slight change in the terms of reference for those establishments.
So I’d urge the government not to think small when considering how to respond to the Lamb report, but to think big, and be imaginative. There really is a great deal to be achieved – if only we have the courage to do it.
[ In writing this (in response to a request for the reaction of a special school head) I've been frustrated by the difficulty in keeping the words down - and am aware that there are many aspects of the report (and my response) which may well be very unfamiliar to anyone not already involved in education and in particular special schools - I'd welcome comments on this issue - please let me know if you've no idea what I'm talking about ! ]