Children Who Are Not So Special after All

Article excerpt

New Labour wants social inclusion, but seems reluctant to fund special needs education. Is this not a form of segregation?

They used to be called handicapped, thick, retarded. In these more enlightened times, we talk about children with learning difficulties, disabilities and other special needs. Whatever the terminology, there are a lot of them about.

One in five school-age children -- almost one in two in some local authorities -- receives special needs education. More than 3 per cent have a legally binding "statement", which entitles them to services such as one-to-one assistance or specially adapted equipment. Between one-fifth and one-third of local education budgets is spent on servicing special needs.

The government is in a quandary. Its social inclusion agenda demands the fullest possible integration of special needs children into mainstream schools. But schools which are trying to claw their way up the examination league tables find that special needs pupils hold them back. In schools at the top of GCSE tables, an average of about 8 per cent of the pupils have special needs, against 33 per cent in schools at the bottom.

The obvious answer is to provide extra resources for special needs children and to introduce proper pay and training for the largely unqualified learning support assistants who subsist on less than [pound]8,000 a year. But things seem to be moving the other way. Under pressure from cash-strapped local education authorities, the government has been trying to restrict the number of statements of special educational need -- the main mechanism by which schools and parents get hold of extra funding for their children.

In 1997, a Coopers & Lybrand report, commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment, had predicted a special needs "expenditure time bomb". A green paper then proposed fewer and less specific statements, with a view to phasing them out. In the face of outcry from parents' organisations, ministers backed off, giving assurances that children's legal entitlements were not at risk. But according to special needs groups, that threat has been resurrected in a new form.

In July, as schools were going on holiday, the department sent out for consultation a new code of practice on special needs. Whereas the old code required statements to "specify" special needs provision, the new one demands only that they be "set out". The distinction may seem obscure, even theological. But, according to John Wright of the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice, the vaguer term will allow education authorities to avoid committing themselves to anything much.

For parents battling to get basic provision for their children's needs, precision matters. Take Martin, an 11-year-old boy with speech and language problems, dyslexia and other learning difficulties. His parents fought tooth and nail, repeatedly taking his case to appeal, to secure a statement for him from his local authority. But because the wording on it was too vague, he ended up sharing his periods of special tuition with a child whose main problem was behavioural and whose needs were therefore entirely different. The parents eventually got one-to-one tuition for Martin, but they had to resume the battle when he moved to secondary school.

Nor do children with more easily identifiable needs get the right support without a struggle. Jamie, a nine-year-old boy who suffers from Down's syndrome, was told that he could not stay at his primary school because the local authority had failed to specify the number of hours it would fund for him. His mother fought the case successfully at a tribunal, only to be told that the authority had no speech therapists for him. She found one privately, and forced the local authority to cough up.

Few parents have the time, money or emotional resources to go through such torment. Yet the practice of leaving statements vague and open-ended is widespread, says Peter Farrell, a professor of special needs and educational psychology at the University of Manchester. …