New concerns over special educational needs policy

Laurence Turner reports on the latest government attempts to reform special educational needs provision and the dangers and difficulties to be overcome.

By Laurence Turner

Since last year, Left Foot Forward has monitored the progress of the much delayed Special Educational Needs (SEN) green paper. When the green paper was finally released, several policy proposals were cautiously welcomed, but it was made clear that serious doubts over the funding of SEN specialist support services remained.

School funding as a whole is under review, and the consultation document (pdf) suggests that local authorities will receive an additional ‘pot’ for specialist provision -although the funding source is not identified.

When a panel of experts – drawn from the worlds of specialist education, local government, the charitable sector and academia – went before the Education Select Committee yesterday, the related concerns of funding structures and service capacity were repeatedly raised.

We heard only that an announcement on Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) funding would be made ‘soon’. But the hearing also raised a different problem, which threatens to further undermine these embattled reforms.

The SEN green paper proposes the abolition of the old statementing system in favour of a new ‘Education, Health and Care Plan’ – potentially saving Local Authorities money, and children and young adults the humiliation of dozens of poorly coordinated tests. Single assessment is a popular proposal, but it requires the integration of SEN diagnosis procedures with other sectors in a state of flux.

Asked yesterday whether she thought integration would be a straightforward process, Sarah Teather, minister for Children and Families, replied:

“If I’m honest with you my answer is no. I don’t think it’s going to be straightforward. I think it’s going to be difficult… ministers before me have sat here and said that they wanted the different services to work better together and have not succeeded.”

The most sensitive connected area is GP commissioning. Responding directly to a question from Labour’s Pat Glass on the impact of the NHS consultation, Teather admitted that:

“We’re in a pause at the moment  on the legislation… [which] will add uncertainty for people trying to work out how those structures will work.”

The government is left in a bind: it has a historic opportunity to reform SEN provision, but battles on too many fronts are preventing it from doing so. This may be seen as yet another delay – the green paper was originally due ‘in the autumn’ of 2010, it was eventually published in March – but for vulnerable children reliant on threatened services, each delay risks irreparable damage to their development.

A mounting body of anecdotal evidence helps show how cuts to local government funding have impacted hard on specialist services; many similar stories go unreported. The sector needs stabilising through strong policy leadership, but sadly this government’s record so far does not inspire confidence.

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