Questions for the government over special needs funding

Laurence Turner asks questions over the future of Special Educational Needs provision, and the government’s ability to offer a ‘full and equal share’ to all.

Laurence Turner is a diagnosed dyspraxic who has blogged at Labour List

In his introduction to the recent education white paper, Michael Gove writes that:

“… it is only through reforming education that we can allow every child the chance to take their full and equal share in citizenship, shaping their own destiny, and becoming masters of their own fate.”

This is an admirable sentiment – though some readers may take issue with his use of the word ‘only’. Nevertheless, one of the key tests of policy is whether it stands or falls by its own stated intentions. There are serious questions over the future of Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision, and consequently over the government’s ability to offer a “full and equal share” to all children.

The coalition has already made one substantial alteration to the academies agenda with regard to SEN. The last government introduced regulations in 2008 requiring Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs) to hold qualified teacher status in all maintained schools; these regulations did not apply directly to city academies, but in practice were enforced through funding agreements.

It was initially unclear whether the coalition would maintain this requirement for new academies and free schools, but it eventually formalised the commitment after sustained pressure in the House of Lords. However, the future of local authority provided SEN support is uncertain.

At present, local authorities provide vital solutions to deeply complex problems. The term ‘Special Educational Needs’ refers not to neatly defined conditions, but rather denotes a range of complex (and only partially understood) diagnostic spectrums.

Given the high degree of co-morbidity (cross-over) between spectrums amongst individuals with developmental disorders, care must often be highly tailored to suit the specific needs of the individual. This necessitates the levels of expertise currently provided by local authorities.

Under the current system local authorities retain 10 per cent of schools’ budgets for specialist services provision. They benefit from economies of scale, which allows them to maintain both specialists and generalists in order to meet their constituent schools’ demands. Academies and free schools, by contrast, will be allowed to purchase these services from external agencies, including private companies and charities.

The danger is that as local authorities lose funding, the specialist services they provide will have to be discontinued. Marion Davies, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, has warned that:

“If 10 per cent of schools in an area are outstanding and become academies, that is a critical factor about what remains in terms of budget and how you work with schools. If a significant number of schools convert to academies, there’s a real risk that it makes some services that local authorities provide unviable. That’s the big risk…

“These are people with qualifications and experience and are not necessarily the cheapest of staff. If those budgets go, there is the danger of having to cut right back on specialist staff that make a vital difference to children’s outcomes.”

How this new market-driven approach will work in practice is far from clear. What quality assurances will be in place when it comes to external contractors? How will the government ensure that quality of provision does not become secondary to cost considerations? Will the government permit schools to make use of ‘alternative’ treatments, such as the controversial DORE programme which claims to be able to ‘cure’ Dyslexia?

Crucially, will the new market provide enough job security for Britain to train and retain adequate numbers of key SEN workers?

There are significant concerns over the last point. At present workers, such as educational psychologists, have a clear career development path supported by local authorities. There are worrying signs over the future of such professions: as things stand, the government is only committed to guaranteeing a sustainable funding model for the initial training of educational psychologists.

The coalition publically acknowledged the complexity of the issue when Sarah Teather, Minister for Children and Families, commissioned a green paper “to look at every aspect of SEN” – including funding models. The green paper was due to be published this autumn, but it has since been postponed till February.

In the meantime those who depend on local authority services face a worrying future, and the capacity of our education system to meet the needs of some of its most vulnerable children remains in doubt.

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