(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 was pleased to see this press release Ed Balls: More support for children with Special Educational Needs from the DCSF which came to me via email from my local authority.
I’ve blogged before on the way that David Cameron seems be cornering the market in the Special Education field (David Cameron’s right to flag up provision for families with disabled children.) and how the Labour party don’t seem to be providing any responses to the suggestions he makes (Still no response to David Cameron on Autism, Disability) .
Ed Balls statement is a welcome reversal of this trend. The part that caught my attention in particular (as Head of a school for children with severe, profound and multiple disabilities) was this :
To ensure pupils had the highest quality teaching in special schools, Ed Balls announced he was commissioning Toby Salt to lead an independent review into the supply of teachers trained to meet the needs of children with Severe Learning Difficulties (SLD) and Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD). He also announced that the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) would be taking forward a £550,000 project to develop special schools as leaders in teaching and learning practice for children with the most complex learning difficulties, meeting a commitment in the 21st century schools system White Paper.
This is welcome news indeed. I wonder how many readers are aware of just how many “special school teachers” for children with learning difficulties have actually received any specialist training to teach children with learning difficulties prior to entering those schools ? Well to give you a clue, there have been no specialist initial teacher training courses since I graduated with a Bachelor of Education in 1989. Many special school teachers have received no award bearing training after qualification either.
(That isn’t all bad news actually – mainstream teachers bring a great deal to special schools – and the shift of emphasis from specialist training of teachers for special schools, has helped facilitate some of the achievements in promoting inclusive practice in the education of children with special educational needs. Few people teaching in the field of Special Educational Needs would consider the situation ideal however)
It’s also clear to me as well that special schools – catering for the most severe disabilities – far from being institutions which promote segregated education, are actually the organisations best placed to provide help, advice and support to colleagues across the spectrum of educational provision, to promote the education of children with special needs in all settings.
Although David Cameron does echo the opinions of many parents in prioritising special schools over mainstream provision for children with special educational needs – he perhaps forgets that the overwhelming majority of children with special educational needs are – and should be – educated in mainstream schools. He is right to emphasise the importance of special schools though in meeting the needs of those with the most severe and complex needs – but does not I feel go far enough to recognise the key role of that special schools, and specialist teachers can play as centres of excellence, spreading good practice, and helping to ensure that the rest of the educational system is better equipped to meet all children’s needs in their own schools.
I’m hopeful that the SSAT project which Ed Balls announces in this release will be a move towards doing just that.
The two initiatives will certainly be led by people recognisable to education professionals – Toby Salt has worked extensively with the National College for School Leadership, and Professor Barry Carpenter is arguably the best known practitioner in Special Education in the UK today. He is known, liked and respected by many in the profession – including myself.
It’s perhaps worth noting that Ed Balls is in a very different position to David Cameron when it comes to making pronouncements about the future of education. David Cameron can effectively shoot whatever pitch he likes in order to garner public support and votes. He may or may not get a chance to implement what he says. He may or may not choose to. Whether he’ll have the funding to do so is also a matter of some conjecture as well.
Mr Balls on the other hand is the incumbent secretary of state. If he makes promises, he’s obliged to carry them out. Yet clearly he may not be in a position to do so – it’s unlikely that any changes requiring government legislation can be implemented before the election – an election which could be lost. Neither can he make rash promises though – it’s an election which could also be won !
So I’m satisfied for the moment with the promises made in this press release, but hope to see the issues surrounding the education of children with special needs, and with disabilities taking a higher priority as we move towards the election. I’m sure David Cameron will do that, but whilst I respect his position regarding these issues, I don’t feel that his party does, and would expect that this would be fertile vote winning ground for the more compassionate, and thoughtful Labour Party.
Only time will tell !
This piece on “The Independent” website by David Cameron today (The five lessons I learned as the father of a disabled child) will resonate very powerfully with professionals working with disabled children, and with the parents of those children. Most of those people will agree with every word of it, and even those who don’t will agree with much of it.
I feel strongly that this is a powerful electoral battleground that the Conservatives are opening up, and hope sincerely that Labour responds in kind quickly and sensibly
I’m headteacher of a special school – and I’ll certainly be blogging on this in the next few days. Watch this space
For anyone who thinks David Cameron is cynically exploiting the sympathy value of his dead disabled son for a few votes – think again ! He has a well known history of championing the rights of people with learning difficulties in particular, not least in Oxfordshire where his constituency lies, and is one of only two politicians ever to have approached me as a head teacher to ask my opinion (long before he was leader by the way). The other was a certain Mr John Bercow – who I personally feel has a lot in common with David Cameron, and can’t understand what the Tories have against him. But what does a raving Socialist like me know !