(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 !
I don’t often agree with the Conservatives – but this time I did – I’m writing this in the hope that it will stimulate a little thought and perhaps encourage Labour to make it plain that they are every bit as committed to these issues as David Cameron.
I felt that David Cameron’s article outlining his position with regard to provision for children with disabilities for the Independent on Thursday was a very important one.
Of course I would do – I’ve spent my whole career working in special schools – but I feel that the article has far wider importance – and signals an attempt to place the politics of disability centre stage, as we approach a general election.
If so then he has made a very good start. He rings most of the bells which families of disabled children, and those working with those children want to hear.
He also has a personal interest through his own personal experience as parent of his child Ivan who sadly died recently. The authenticity with which he relates that experience will certainly ring true with many parents and carers. I applaud his article – and hope that it kicks off a wider debate about the issues which he raises.
What I’d like to do is to look briefly at each of the 5 areas which he raises, and state how and why I’d like to go further :
Lesson 1 : The importance of early intervention and help : The next Conservative government is going to increase radically the number of health visitors
It’s hard to disagree with this – but I’d go further – we also need therapeutic input – Physios, OT’s, Psychologists and Speech & Language therapists as well.
David quite rightly tells us of the trauma which parents suffer on finding out that their children are disabled. Much of the help provided, will need to be as much for parents as for their children.
There’s no mention of who will pay for this radical increase in health visitor numbers – but I for one will not be picking holes in his suggestion.
Lesson 2 : Life for parents of disabled children is complicated enough : a crack team of medical experts – doctor, nurse, physio – [should] act as a one-stop-shop to assess families and get them the help they need.
Well he’s absolutely right about the complications – the politics of statements, about who does what, which number to ring for what service, who pays for which piece of equipment. It’s ridiculous – parents should be able to access one point of contact to deal with all of their issues. My own feeling (and I freely admit to my bias) is that this should be via the schools.
I do like the idea of a “crack team” – and I certainly endorse the “one-stop shop”. I’d caution against seeing disability as a primarily medical issue though. Some disabilities can be of course, but many are educational, psychological, and sociological in nature and the professional input most needed is often not a doctor or nurse at all. In fact a side effect of viewing disabilities as a medical issue, is that it can encourage the view that the disabled person is “ill” – and the corollary that they can be “cured” – which almost by definition is unlikely to be the case.
I’d suggest actually that in many cases these “crack teams” already exist, which is not to say they can’t be improved. One suggestion I would certainly like to see is the re-introduction of specifically trained teachers in the education of children with special educational needs.
I wonder how many people reading this think that teachers in Special Schools for example, had specialist training in order to teach there ? Well some do of course (me for one) – but the last courses leading to qualified teacher status, and specialising in “Special Needs Education” closed their doors in 1989. Most teachers in special schools are mainstream trained teachers with no prior specialist training. I think it’s time we did something about that.
Lesson 3 : we’ve got to make it easier for parents to get the right education for children with disabilities we’re going to stop the closure of special schools and give parents more information and greater choice
If I could change one thing in the world of special education it would be the way in which disputes are settled with respect to special educational needs provision. I could write a book about it – and I’ll blog another time about the specific frustrations of securing out of placements in the specialist independent sector – but briefly here’s the problem :
The local authority has the responsibility to meet the needs of a child with a statement of special educational needs. The statement is a relatively complex legal document (especially if you’ve never seen one before – which most parents haven’t) – which is drawn up by the local authority. It has to be agreed by the parents, and reviewed annually, and any dispute can ultimately be decided by a Special Needs Tribunal under the auspices of SENDIST.
Problems are usually sorted before that – but sometimes not. It can be a tough situation though.
I wouldn’t wish an educational tribunal on my worst enemy. They are heavy going even for seasoned professionals. For parents with no experience of taking on the great and the good, and worried about their children’s future they can be daunting in the extreme.
Like David Cameron, I want this situation to be improved and I suggest the following :
- SENDIST tribunals to be replaced with a non-adversarial arbitration and conciliation services, which provides a free advisory service to parents – and if necessary to local authorities.
- The removal from local authorities of the financial burden of funding non-maintained and independent special school places. This funding to be handled by regional bodies, drawing an averaged amount from LA budgets, allowing LA’s to reach decisions on suitability of placements on a purely needs driven basis.
The thinking behind the closure of special schools is a complex and philosophical one. I’m certainly encouraged that David Cameron appears to be in favour of a special school provision – but do remember : Most children with special educational needs, can and should be educated in main stream schools.
As of course they are. Some would do better in special schools though – but the nuances of where we draw the lines, how we decide who is placed where, though tiny in the national picture, are huge life changing decisions for some young people and their families. It is an area that certainly would benefit from further public debate.
I’d like to see :-
- A national review of LA policies on special school versus mainstream special needs provision, basing outcomes not on ideology, but as far as practicable on the choices of young people and their families, and the needs of individuals not populations.
Lesson 4 : Like all other carers, parents need a break.
Respite care is such a massive need for families with disabled children. It must become a major priority. Like David I feel that the voluntary sector will undoubtedly be key agents in addressing this need – but let’s not undervalue it – and if funds are needed they should be allocated.
Lesson 5 : “Here is the total budget for you or your child, you choose how it’s broken down.”
This is of course already happening for some –but not for others. I love this approach because it’s radical and progressive – in some respects extremely right wing, in others extremely left wing – it doesn’t matter. It’s an idea that is about enabling the most powerless, vulnerable, and disenfranchised people in society to make directly the decisions that will improve their lives and give them control over what happens to them. Get on the case Labour – and tell the world what we’re doing towards this !
If I was to offer a few words of caution, they would be to look at who really makes the decisions in the end – is it the parents, the person with the disabilities – or is it someone else ? Parent’s don’t always choose the things for their children that their children would choose for themselves. If you’re an able bodied teenager you tend to find that out and make yourself heard and make your choices accordingly. If you’re a severely disabled teenager you might not be able to make your feelings heard quite so easily.
In a similar way parents of disabled children are not necessarily skilled in managing the responsibilities of spending delegated budgets to meet their children’s needs – and may need help.
I hope I’ve given a brief hint of how I feel about these issues – and that it may stimulate a little debate elsewhere – hopefully within the Labour party – about these important issues. I’ve tried not get bogged down in detail – but if this article is a little on the long side it’s because I could literally write a book on each of these 5 “lessons” – they really do mean an awful lot, to an awful lot of people – who are still a tiny minority within our society.
I’d like to finish by drawing attention to a sixth area that David Cameron hasn’t covered : Our provision for children with disabilities is strong, but could be stronger. Yes – but many of them will need our services for their entire lives though, and there is a reality that provision beyond school age is no where near as intense in terms of either quality of frequency as that which they receive as children. I think this is a problem.
I’ll leave that one for people to think about.