In 2005 around 18% of all pupils in school in England were categorised as having some sort of special educational need (SEN) (1.5 million children). Around 3% of all children (250,000) had a statement of SEN and around 1% of all children were in special schools (90,000)which represents approximately one third of children with statements. With such a large number of children involved, it is important to recognise that many children are receiving the education they need in an appropriate setting. It is equally important, however, to highlight the difficulties faced by a large number of parents for whom the system is failing to meet the needs of their children. This inquiry gives careful consideration - based on the large quantity of written and oral evidence received - to where the SEN system is failing and considers how the Government can improve outcomes for all children with SEN and disabilities in England.
Inclusion policya confused message
The Government's policy of inclusion has come under criticism recentlyincluding by Baroness Warnock in her 2005 article Special Educational Needs: a new lookfor its confused and changing definition which is reported to be causing the closure of special schools and "forcing" some children into mainstream schools when it is not in their best interests to be there, resulting in distress for pupils and parents.
Inclusion is a broad concept that covers a wide range of issues both within and between schoolsand interpretations of the concept vary greatlybut, with specific regard to special schools, the Government has told this inquiry that it does not hold a policy of inclusion that is resulting in the closure of special schools. Lord Adonis, the Minister with responsibility for SEN, described the Government as being "content" if, as a result of local authority decisions, the current "roughly static position in respect of special schools" continues. Lord Adonis specifically said that the Government "do not have a view about a set proportion of pupils who should be in special schools".
In the 2004 SEN Strategy Removing Barriers to Achievement, however, which aims to "set out the Government's vision on SEN," guidance to local authorities unmistakably says that "the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time" and there should be a "reduced reliance on statements". The SEN Strategy is not unique in doing so. Based on statutory and non-statutory guidance, and based on the Government's original 1997 position, it is reasonable for those involved in SEN to assume that the Government holds a policy of inclusion from which it has given guidance to local authorities to reduce both the proportion of pupils in special schools and to reduce reliance on statements.
If, as Lord Adonis claims, the Government "have no policy whatever, I should stress, of encouraging local authorities to close special schools" then why do some local authorities "believe they have been instructed to close special schools"?
The most generous reading of the evidence is that the Government is moving forward towards seeking a "flexible continuum of provision" being available in all local authorities to meet the needs of all children, including those with SEN, but this is not the basis for the approach outlined in SENDA 2001, the SEN Code of Practice 2001, or the 2004 SEN Strategy. This should be put right.
What is urgently needed is for the Government to clarify its position on SENspecifically on inclusionand to provide national strategic direction for the future. The Government needs to provide a clear over-arching strategy for SEN and disability policy. It needs to provide a vision for the future that everyone involved in SEN can purposefully work towards.
The Government should be up-front about its change of direction on SEN policy and the inclusion agenda, if this is indeed the case, and should reflect this in updated statutory and non-statutory guidance to the sector.
A national framework with local flexibility
For many children with SEN and disabilities, special schools provide an invaluable contribution to their education. The issue should not be their closure but how to progress to a system based on a broad range of high quality, well resourced, flexible provision to meet the needs of all children.
The Minister confirmed that there will be no major review of SEN policy and officials confirmed that "the focus of our attention is within the (existing) framework". The education system as a whole has, however, moved on considerably since the existing SEN framework was put in place following the Warnock report in 1978 and persevering with the current SEN system fails to deal with the well-documented problems or to take advantage of the opportunities generated by these changes.
It is the view of this Committee that the original Warnock framework has run its course. With Ofsted identifying a "considerable inequality of provision"both in terms of quality and access to a broad range of suitable provisionthe SEN system is demonstrably no longer fit for purpose and there is a need for the Government to develop a new system that puts the needs of the child at the centre of provision.
The DfES memorandum states that "Government plays no role in relation to local authority reorganisations or in respect of decisions to close schools" but this is an abdication of responsibility; the Government needs to set a clear national framework in which local authorities can make decisions regarding provision. Of course local authorities must continue to have the capacity to plan and re-organise provision to meet local needs but the Government must clearly state its vision for children with SEN and disabilities. The Government should provide a much clearer National Strategy linked to minimum standards and a statutory requirement for local authorities to provide a broad continuum of flexible provisionincluding high quality special schools.
The Government needs to develop a child-centred approach with regard to each stage of the statementing process: assessment of needs; allocation of resources; and placement. It should develop a system based on early identification and intervention, where schools are fully resourced and staff are fully equipped to meet those needs, and where there is a broad range of suitable high quality provision available to ensure all children are healthy, safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and achieve economic well-being. SEN provision should be integral to the Every Child Matters agenda to ensure a seamless service is in place with multi-agency involvement across key transition phases and through adulthood.
The Government needs to radically increase investment in training its workforce so that all staff, including teaching staff, are fully equipped and resourced to improve outcomes for children with SEN and disabilities.
Evidence from this inquiry demonstrates how far the country is from achieving such a vision. It is simply not acceptable for the Minister to say that the current system is "not always working well". Special educational needs should be prioritised, brought into the mainstream education policy agenda, and radically improved.