Select Committee on Education and Skills Third Report


Brief history of Special Educational Needs (SEN)

8. Under the 1944 Education Act, children with special educational needs were categorised by their disabilities defined in medical terms. Many children were considered to be "uneducable" and pupils were labelled into categories such as "maladjusted" or "educationally sub-normal" and given "special educational treatment" in separate schools.

9. The Warnock Report in 1978, followed by the 1981 Education Act, radically changed the conceptualisation of special educational needs. It introduced the idea of special educational needs (SEN), "statements" of SEN, and an "integrative"—which later became known as "inclusive"—approach, based on common educational goals for all children regardless of their abilities or disabilities: namely independence, enjoyment, and understanding.

10. The various Acts and legislation that have followed demonstrate the progress in attitude that has taken place since the Warnock report towards the aim of trying to include all children in a common education framework and away from categorising children with SEN or disabilities as a race apart. This has been representative of a broader international trend.

11. The Warnock Framework was introduced under the 1981 Education Act but with no additional funding for the new processes involved in statementing or teacher training, despite the closure of many special schools. The 1988 Education Act then established the National Curriculum and a system of league tables where schools competed based on academic attainment. Baroness Warnock described things as getting:

12. The Warnock framework remained firmly in place through the 1990s. During the 1980s and 1990s there was a considerable decline in the number of children in special schools and a gradual increase in the proportion of children both identified as having special educational needs (SEN) and given statements of SEN (see section 3: facts and figures on SEN). As Brahm Norwich, Professor of Educational Psychology and SEN at the University of Exeter, identified to this Committee in evidence:

    "there has been quite a sizeable decline in the total population of special schools. That was greatest in the 1980s and flattened out somewhat in the 1990s."[14]

13. In the 1997 Green Paper Excellence For All Children Meeting Special Educational Needs, the new Labour Government gave public support to the UN statement on Special Needs Education 1994 which "calls on governments to adopt the principle of inclusive education" and "implies a progressive extension of the capacity of mainstream schools to provide for children with a wide range of needs".[15] By doing so, it "aligned the English education system for the first time with the international movement towards inclusive education. This, in many ways, was a remarkable move. The Government [...] positioned itself at [...] the forefront of thinking in the field and all seemed set fair for the rapid development of an education system that would be a world leader in terms of inclusion."[16]

14. Despite this, since 1999-2000 the proportion of children in special schools (around 1%), the proportion of children with SEN (around 18%), and the proportion of children with statements of SEN (around 3%) has plateaued—all within a system still based on the original 1978 Warnock framework.

15. This Government inherited the existing SEN framework and sought to improve it through the SEN And Disability Act (SENDA) 2001, and the 2004 SEN Strategy Removing Barriers to Achievement which claimed to set out "the Government's vision for the education of children with SEN and disability". This Government have also substantially increased investment in SEN. Expenditure on SEN has increased from £2.8 billion to £4.1 billion in the last four years. Nevertheless, it is an old framework that is struggling to keep up with the diverse range of needs across the 1.5 million children categorised as having some sort of special educational need.

16. It has been noted by the National Autistic Society and others that society now understands special educational needs to represent a much wider continuum of needs than first identified by the Warnock Report in 1978.[17] As Alan Dyson, Professor of Education at the University of Manchester, told this Committee:

    "You have this mismatch of very rapid change in the mainstream education system and this foundation of a Warnock-inspired framework that really has not changed very much at all. It has been tweaked a little, but substantially it is the same framework [...] it is not surprising if the system is creaking at the joints a little."[18]

17. The Warnock SEN framework is struggling to remain fit for purpose, and where significant cracks are developing in the system—most starkly demonstrated by the failure of the system to cope with the rising number of children with autism and social, emotional or behavioural difficulties (SEBD)—this is causing high levels of frustration to parents, children, teachers and local authorities.

18. The Government's policy of inclusion has come under criticism recently for causing the closure of special schools. In evidence to this inquiry, however, the Minister firmly stated that the Government "have no policy whatever, I should stress, of encouraging local authorities to close special schools".[19] The Government's position on inclusion seems confused and there is a need for clarification.

19. There are a number of similarities between the aims stated in the Government's 2004 SEN Strategy Removing Barriers to Achievement and in the Every Child Matters agenda, and those in the original Warnock Report in 1978: joined up services, tailoring support around the needs of the children, a wide range of measurements for success, equipping the workforce, and raising standards. The aims of the original Warnock Report proved incredibly difficult to achieve despite the 1981 legislation. The 2004 SEN Strategy provided very little detail of how these aims will become a reality for those children and young people with SEN and disabilities. It is not clear why these aims should be any easier to achieve in 2006 without radical change to the priority given to children with SEN and disabilities.

20. In July 2005 Baroness Warnock wrote an article on SEN in which she called for the Government to set up another commission to review the situation.[20] She concluded that there was an urgent need to review SEN, particularly the concept of inclusion, the process of statementing, and to gain a better understanding of the link between social disadvantage and SEN.

The need for this inquiry

21. Having received over 230 written submissions, taken evidence from over 40 witnesses in oral evidence, made visits to schools, and having considered the recent Warnock report, as well as Ofsted and Audit Commission reports, it is clear that there are significant problems with the current system of SEN provision and high levels of dissatisfaction amongst parents and teachers. In their written memorandum Ofsted have said that "SEN is becoming more of a confusing and litigious area than ever before."[21] In oral evidence the Kids First Group, a parent-representative organisation, described a situation where:

    "[...] too many of our special needs children are severely let down."[22]

22. In its submission to this inquiry the DfES recognised that "the current system is not working perfectly." Lord Adonis, Under Secretary of State for Schools and the Minister with responsibility for SEN, told this Committee that:

    "I would be the last person to claim that all is well in the system."[23]

23. The DfES go on to say in their memorandum that "for the great majority of families the system is operating effectively to meet their children's needs".[24] This does not, however, take away from the significant difficulties faced by a large number of parents for whom the system is failing to meet the needs of their children causing frustration and conflict. The Committee would invite the Minister to read the 230 written memoranda we have received during this inquiry and consider, in full, the conclusions and recommendations of this report.

A major review of SEN?

24. In her evidence to this Committee, Baroness Warnock said that a radical review of SEN policy is needed. In their submission the DfES said that "It (The Government) does not believe that a major review of policy on SEN would be appropriate at present [...] what is needed now is change on the ground. Any new review would simply delay progress in making this happen."[25]

25. Lord Adonis told this Committee that:

    "the case for a wholesale replacement of the local authority system and statementing does not appear to us to have been made convincingly."[26]

26. The Minister went on to say that:

    "Ofsted has been critical of the SEN in the past, but … we know the challenges, we know what works, we know the conditions that make things work and we know what does not work. Ofsted's view would be: "Let us focus on those things and change them."[27]

27. In their memorandum to this inquiry, the DfES have argued that it is precisely because of the Ofsted and Audit Commission reports that the issues are known and, therefore, a major review of SEN policy is not needed.[28] The Audit Commission has, however, specifically called for a review of policy on the issue of statements. It published a briefing entitled Statutory Assessment and Statements of SEN: In Need of Review in June 2002 which highlighted claims that: demand for statements was rising; statutory assessment was costly and bureaucratic, stressful for parents and added little value in meeting a child's needs; and that statements were leading to an inequitable distribution of resources, and failed to support early intervention and inclusive practice.[29] Despite the Audit Commission specifically calling for a review of the statementing process in 2002, four years on the Government still says it has no plans to review the statementing process. This is unacceptable.

28. When asked about SEN policy during Prime Minister's Questions on 2 November 2005, however, the Prime Minister said "I accept there is room for improvement and we are keeping SEN provision under review." Along with the DfES innovations unit, Lord Adonis held a private "Ministerial Seminar on next practice in SEN" in November 2005 which involved a wide ranging discussion with experts—particularly on proposals surrounding "third way provision"[30] on which a paper was provided.[31]

29. Furthermore, the Treasury is undertaking a "root and branch" review of funding for children with complex needs. David Singleton of Children Now reported that "the DfES has identified this area as the one in which it would most like funding to be increased in the next spending review [...] The Treasury will now begin a process called "zero-base budgeting", in which it calculates the amount of funding required from a base level of zero (or from first principles). This could lead to a significant increase in the level of funding directed towards children with complex needs—an area that includes looked-after children, children with special educational needs and those with severe disabilities."[32] The DfES has told the Committee that this is a joint review with the Treasury and will report through the Comprehensive Spending Review either in November 2006 or March 2007.[33]

30. Ofsted do not believe a major review of SEN is necessary, but Eileen Visser, Area Division Manager, Ofsted, did say to this Committee that:

    "Some aspects of the structural provision need more than a tweak. They do need us to sit down together, across the political dimension, the inspection dimension and the professional field, and say, "What is it that we need to do?"[34]

31. Whilst the Government says is does not wish to undertake a major public review of its policy on SEN, it does seem to be re-considering its policy in private. The fact that the DfES has identified SEN as the area it would most like significant additional funding for is an encouraging sign of progress. The Minister assured us that the Government:

    "[...] would look very carefully at anything you recommended to us in this area or other areas."[35]

32. The Committee believes this is a critical time to be publishing the results of our inquiry. We would urge the Government to give most careful thought to our recommendations and consider a completely fresh look at SEN. We look forward to constructive and vital progress for children with SEN and disabilities.

13   Q42 Back

14   Q501 Back

15   DfEE, Excellence for all children: meeting special educational needs, 1997 Back

16   A. Dyson, Philosophy, politics and economics? The story of inclusive education in England, 2005 in: D. Mitchell (Ed) Contextualising Inclusive Education: Evaluating old and new international perspectives (London, Routledge). Back

17   SEN 128 Back

18   Q 499 Back

19   Q 895 Back

20   Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, Baroness Warnock, Special educational needs: a new look, 2005. No. 11 in a series of policy discussions. Back

21   SEN 133 paragraph 1.2 Back

22   Q146 Back

23   Q851 Back

24   SEN 178 Back

25   SEN 178 Back

26   Q851 Back

27   Q851 Back

28   SEN 178 paragraph 127  Back

29   SEN 173 Back

30   'Third way' is a term that the discussion paper describes as 'increasingly used in national policy discussions to describe provision for children with SEN that combines elements of special and mainstream education'. Back

31   Anne Pinney, Independent Researcher, DfES, Third Way Provision for children with SEN, a discussion paper written to inform the Ministerial Seminars on SEN held on 25th October 2005. Back

32   Children Now, David Singleton, Spending Review: Treasury to review funding for children with complex needs, 1 March 2006  Back

33   Education and Skills Committee, Second Report of Session 2005-06, Public Expenditure on Education and Skills, HC 479, Q 94.  Back

34   Q671 Back

35   Q901 Back

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