(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 ! ]
[ I had a good idea with this one but got a bit bogged down - remember I'm an ordinary bloke not a journalist - I tidied off the worst of the rough edges and decided to publish anyway, maybe I'll come back to this theme later ]
Listening to the debate at Progress’s event last Monday Would primaries save or kill the Labour party? I naturally did a lot of thinking about the pro’s & cons of primary elections. As I’ve blogged previously Thoughts on primaries and electoral reform – and Monday’s debate did nothing to change my mind – I can’t help but feel that although I tend to be in support of primaries, I think that they would be best employed as part of a wider range of electoral and political reform.
I’m not especially well versed in this subject area though and I feel that those issues are likely to be covered elsewhere with a little more subject specific knowledge than I can muster The Progress campaign for Labour primaries page is as good a place as any to find more information – so instead I’d like to turn my attention to something slightly different – but very much related I feel.
A strong theme that arose in the debate on Monday was that on the one hand it was slightly unfair that people who had taken the trouble to join the party, and indeed pay their subscriptions would in effect have very little more say in the selection of candidates, than an ordinary member of the public who may not eventually go on to vote for the candidate (or party) at the election. Against this it was pointed out that in many cases Parliamentary candidates are effectively selected by as few as 50 people, which raises some interesting questions about the true nature of democracy.
The answer which seemed to arise to these questions was essentially this : that political parties as they are now, and have been for many years will not continue to exist if they cling to the models of membership that they had in the past. Labour has dwindled to a fraction of its former size, and the Tories similarly have seen a haemorrhaging of members even in what is seen to be a time of renewed enthusiasm for them among the general public. New approaches to membership must develop if parties as we now recognise them are to continue.
As a football supporter, I was (and am) struck by the similarities between “the beautiful game” and the state of politics in this country
(and yes I know I turn every conversation round to football – that’s just me OK !)
In the 60′s & 70′s and before, supporting a football team meant turning up at the matches and standing in the cold to watch. That was really the only way of doing it.The particularly keen became season ticket holders which made them part of the core customer base – if we’re looking for an analogy with a political party, a season ticket holder was like a “member” of the party.
I held a season ticket until the mid eighties, at which time I moved away from home. I haven’t been to many games since – so have I stopped being a supporter ?
Well in the old sense I have – someone who manged 3 games over to 2 seasons would have been thought a pretty poor supporter in the old days, but times have most definitely changed.
For one thing, the geographical limits have changed. When I grew up in West Yorkshire, there was very little choice about football teams. It had to be Leeds or Huddersfield really. Few people travelled much further afield – or really expected to in their life time.
Now it’s more or less expected that people will move around as they progress through life – to different parts of the country and to different parts of the world. You’re as likely to be able to buy a Manchester United shirt in Oxford Street as in Manchester, and it’s become recognised that the people who sit in the stands aren’t necessarily the only “lifeblood” a team has.
Millions watch football on TV – and money from the television deals essentially provides the biggest part of the finance within the game.
I can’t imagine Sky TV ever paying millions of pounds for the right to televise CLP meetings live though – so perhaps that’s not the right part of the analogy to use.
Where I think politics can learn, is from the myriad of different ways in which it’s not possible to support a football team :
You can join “Patron’s” societies – to have access to the hierarchy within the club – and pay for the privilege.
You can join Travel clubs – and just go to the away games – Did you know that Huddersfield coaches sometimes pick up passengers in Milton Keynes ?
You can be part of online communities – email lists, and web forums – which are often joined by players and staff as well
You can buy a shirt and never go to a game or do anything else – but some of the money still goes to the club
You can open a bank account or get a credit card which provides funds to your team
You can vote for “player of the year” on the club’s website.
Which sort of brings us back to primaries. But back in the Labour Party – it’s still in the main a “put your card in your wallet and turn up at the meetings” kind of deal (and please, I am aware of the irony of a member of less than 6 months standing waxing lyrical on membership – I’ve no wish to knock those hardy stalwarts who’ve done just that for so many years)
What I’m saying is that just as changes in technology, and society changed how we support our football teams then it will also change the way in which we support our political parties – and I’d hazard a guess that the parties that get their heads around this the quickest, will be the ones best placed to survive the the coming decades.