Cautious optimism over the Special Educational Needs green paper

Parts of the Special Educational Needs green paper have been hailed by the right wing press - but some of the measures proposed today should be greeted with cautious optimism by progressives.

By Laurence Turner

The government’s much anticipated Special Educational Needs (SEN) green paper was finally published today. The paper, which was originally due to be published last autumn, has been dogged by a series of delays, as detailed previously by Left Foot Forward. Its arrival helps to fill an important gap in the coalition’s overall education policy.

The paper’s plan to cut spending through tackling the perceived (and controversial) ‘problem of over-identification’ (p 67) has been hailed by the right wing press, but some of the measures proposed today should be greeted with cautious optimism by progressives.

Moves towards better teacher training, a less confrontational assessment system and a greater emphasis on early intervention would represent essential reforms to a ‘post-code lottery’ service in urgent need of overhaul.

Unfortunately, the paper is short on detail in several important areas. The headline pledge to replace the current statementing system with a new assessment and an ‘education, health and care plan’ is underdeveloped, despite plans to run pilots as early as September.

Furthermore, the green paper does not provide detailed service quality guarantees for external providers – a potentially serious issue if, as planned, optional personalised budgets are introduced.

Crucially, there are still questions over the future of funding for SEN services.

Left Foot Forward first raised this issue back in December. There would appear to be cause for some small cheer from the green paper: it pledges that funding for educational psychologist and special educational needs coordinator training will be maintained through 2011/12 (pp 63, 105), and that schools adopting academy status will not deprive local authorities of specialist service funding until the end of 2012 (p 102).

Until then, the question of special needs funding will be addressed in a broader schools’ funding consultation due to commence this spring. If the immediate prospects of specialist services have been bolstered by today’s announcements, their long-term future remains uncertain.

Unfortunately, SEN services are already facing cutbacks. The paper implies that ‘Sure Start Children’s Centres [will] play a key role’ (p 33) in its commendable emphasis on early intervention – but, as Left Foot Forward has shown, Sure Start Centres across the country are facing closure as a result of local government cuts.

In the field of SEN provision, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has warned:

“…psychologists and speech and language therapists are being made redundant as local authorities cut their funding following budget cuts from government.”

The charitable sector, which is expected to assume additional provision and training responsibilities, is also facing substantial cuts. Kevin Williams, chief executive of disability charity Kids, recently said:

“At the end of the day, there is no point in having funding for disabled children and young people if all the mainstream services we want them to access have disappeared.”

As services contract, the best aspects of these proposals risk being undermined by the Treasury’s cuts agenda. In the coming months, more details will emerge regarding the future of these services’ funding. Progressives in both education and politics should do their utmost to ensure a sustainable funding model can be found, and populist proposals to cut the number of children diagnosed with SEN will not transform a culture of support into a climate of scepticism.

It is a truism to say a green paper puts forward more questions than answers. These proposals have not yet taken their final form, and we must hope to influence the final outcome through both Parliament and the consultation process.

While the paper poses a challenge to established practices regarding Special Needs, it also represents an opportunity to build a public service that is both fairer and more efficient than what has gone before.

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