Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)


31 OCTOBER 2005

  Q20  Helen Jones: It is fairly important if we are designing the system.

  Baroness Warnock: I know. The definition, as you probably know, which comes in the 1981 Education Act is the purest vicious circle you will ever know. A special need is defined as "any need that the school needs to take special measures to meet". Well, that is not much of a definition but it is the only definition there is. I think it is that vagueness actually which has led to what I have referred before, which is the very bad habit of talking of SEN children as a class, a category, of children, all of whom would be expected to flourish in the same sort of environment.

  Q21  Helen Jones: That is really the problem, is it not, in dealing with this? If we are to come up with a definition that is worthwhile, that we can work to, bearing in mind we are dealing with young people with a whole range of different needs, is it your view we should be narrowing that definition down, or is it your view that we should be expanding it and looking at all children as individuals? Just thinking of my own experience, I have seen children with special needs flourishing in mainstream schools but I have seen in my constituency very good special schools.

  Baroness Warnock: Absolutely.

  Q22  Helen Jones: Should we be focusing in this Committee on how we meet the needs of the individual child rather than talking about institutions? If so, how can we in your view produce a system which does that, bearing in mind the whole complex range of issues we are trying to deal with here?

  Baroness Warnock: I think what is suggested would be very good, namely it would bring to an end this careless way of treating SEN as a unified category of children. I think very much of what you said would appeal to the Scots because that is exactly what they have been trying to do and they have now given up, as I say, the expression "SEN" and what they now have is "assisted learning support, ALS" and they bring in under the concept of ALS any child who, for whatever reason—social, whatever—is not doing very well at school. So it is I think a practical negative definition. You look at all the children in your class and say, "He is not doing very well, could we do anything for him? He is not getting on very well." In a way, it is not very different from the futile circular definition in the 1981 Act but it is very consciously doing what you suggested, namely seeing an individual child and what they really want to make them flourish. I have to say that was really at the back of our minds on my committee all those years ago, when we were trying to invent ways of talking about these children. We were trying to get away from the medical model and that there was something wrong with them, and we invented this concept of seeing what they needed to make them get further along the same road they were treading with all the other children being educated. So it is not a very different idea from that but we know that did not work and it hardened itself into this concept of SEN and it has tried to improve it.

  Q23  Helen Jones: If we went down that road, could you give the Committee your view of whether there is enough expertise in most of our schools to make those identifications? Some children are identified as having a special need very early, even before they go into full time education, but others are identified later because their needs become apparent later. Is there enough expertise to identify those needs? Is that where the system breaks down? If not, what should we be putting in place to make sure that expertise is there so if a child is not making progress we can identify it?

  Baroness Warnock: That is a terribly important point and the first place one ought to look for that is teacher training and also some of the trainers of teachers ought to come from these trail-blazer schools, of which there are 12 and they are very much scattered about the country. The point of the trail-blazer schools, as you know, is that they are special schools but they are staffed by very expert people who are going out to teach in mainstream schools. That is the point of the schools. I think those trail-blazer teachers should be given a very important role in teacher training and that would mean the caucus of expert people would grow eventually.

  Q24  Helen Jones: Who in your view should finally make the decision about where a child or young person should be placed? Let us say we have gone down the road of deciding a child has particular needs, but we are always faced with the problem of where those needs are best met and all the participants in the child's life will not always agree on where they are best met. Who in your view should make that decision at the end of the day?

  Baroness Warnock: I do not really know I have a view about that, when you think of teachers in mainstream schools and what many of them are up against with children who simply behave extremely badly. Do you have to treat a child as having a special educational need because he is not learning something and preventing others learning? That is a very difficult judgment to make because the teacher will always blame herself—"If I was better at it, this person would settle down and learn. I haven't got the knack." It is terrible. I do not know what the answer is.

  Q25  Helen Jones: That is the key though, is it not?

  Baroness Warnock: Yes.

  Q26  Stephen Williams: Perhaps I could change tack. Earlier you mentioned in one of your responses the medical model of looking at children and we have mentioned children on the autistic spectrum and people with mental and physical disabilities. I understand your initial inquiry in the 1970s did not look at the social background of children?

  Baroness Warnock: We were forbidden. There were two things we were forbidden to do and these came direct from Margaret Thatcher so how could we disobey. One of the things we were forbidden to mention was dyslexia because that was thought to be a middle class invention. The other we were forbidden to mention was social disadvantage because we were told this would be offensive. But we did sneak in a reference to social disadvantage because we were very much conscious of, or some of us were, the absolute absurdity of pretending this did not exist. If you remember, in the 1981 Act the other bit of this futile definition of special needs was nothing could count as a special need which either comes from social disability or from not having English as your first language. I think with both those together the Department was trying to protect itself against a charge of discrimination on grounds of race or wealth or whatever.

  Q27  Stephen Williams: My constituency, Bristol West, is supposedly the archetypal middle class seat and I have the most intellectual constituents in the country with more PhDs and professional qualifications than anybody else, and that is undoubtedly true, but I also have the city centre of Bristol including St Paul's. As I visit primary schools in different parts of my constituency I am struck by the differences, with primary schools in most of my constituency very well supported by the social environment and some of the top primary schools in the country, and then I visit schools in the city centre and the teachers tell me that children cannot concentrate in school because their mother is out doing unsavoury things at night, their dad, if there is a dad at all, has weapons in the house, the child has very little sleep, there are no books in the house. Do you think there needs to be a new definition of the educational needs of a child, not only because of the medical background but their social environment as well?

  Baroness Warnock: Fortunately, the new category of special need, emotional and behavioural difficulties, now includes social as well, so that is a great step forward. There is, among many other good movements privately funded, a movement called the Nurturing Group, and that is spreading all over primary schools and it takes children of the kind you have described, whose vocabulary when they come to school consists of five words most of them expletives, and the Nurturing Groups take these children in groups of six and keep them for as long as a year or two years until they learn, and I think that is a wonderful thing and that is the kind of solution we need because it has to be done quite early. It really is the case of catching them before they are seven, or five say. I think there is hope in the extension of nursery provision too because that is somewhere where you can pick up what is going to turn into an educational need when really first they are nothing but a total failure of communication.

  Q28  Stephen Williams: Do you think the statementing process itself needs to be revised to include these children, because often there will not be parental pressure to put the child forward for statementing, whereas in a middle class area there will be pressure to make sure the child is statemented. In the sort of background I am describing there will be no pressure to get their child the extra support needed.

  Baroness Warnock: None at all, and the school has a huge responsibility but it has to start as soon as the child starts pre-school, nursery, and go on from there. That is another thing, if I were running a new Royal Commission, I would press for.

  Q29  Chairman: We are not all that keen on Royal Commissions in this Committee, Baroness Warnock. We actually said all those things in our inquiry into early years three years ago.

  Baroness Warnock: That was very good.

  Chairman: That was really only an advertisement for the Committee.

  Q30  Jeff Ennis: Baroness Warnock, there are very many critics of the current SEN system in this country—some of whom are on this Committee incidentally—and they say the current system is too cumbersome, litigious, et cetera, and that lack of resources and poor heads on many occasions are put before the needs of the child. Given that scenario, and I am assuming to some extent you may partially or wholly agree with that, and given the fact the Government has already concluded that wholesale change to the present system of statementing would not produce improved outcomes for children with SEN, how do you respond to that, what would seem to be a very placatory response from the Government; very wishy-washy?

  Baroness Warnock: With despair really. We know there is a shortage of resources in all kinds of fields of education and if you asked me it was more important to put resources into schools or universities or teachers' salaries, I would be hard put to answer, but I think the solution cannot be just in terms of more resources. I think before huge amounts of money are spent, my view is that there ought to be a structured examination based on evidence of the method of distributing resources rather than the quantity of the resources. I think what we have got wrong is probably the distribution. I think that is in a way a wide ranging answer to your question but I do not think, without a wide over-arching reform of the concepts under which resources are distributed, we shall get much further.

  Q31  Jeff Ennis: Following on from that particular point, is there any conflict under the existing system between, say, the LA who is the purse-holder at the present time and the Department of Health, for example? You have medical clinicians on many occasions, depending what the condition is, making remarks about what the package should be for that particular child in educational terms, but they have one eye on the fact that in many respects finance is the final arbiter and they put in a sort of open-ended statement saying, "We need to continue the review of that particular child's needs" rather than being specific.

  Baroness Warnock: There is an amazing coming-together from different angles in some of these things. On the one hand, we have always lived in a time of scarcity of resources, so there is the argument you cannot pick out every individual child, it is just too expensive to do that, and give him the education he needs, which is one argument. Then, on the other hand, that argument is reinforced I think by the ideology of not treating children with disabilities as though they were different from everybody else. Therefore you have an argument for the resources in that on the one hand it is very expensive to give everybody exactly what they need but secondly, which is a terribly ideological one, that everybody must muck in together because we are all the same really. So in a way the two arguments reinforce each other. I think both these types of arguments need to be unpicked to see what we could do between everybody to ensure fewer people fall through the floorboards. It is a negative approach to me really; rescue the children, do not say they will cope because coping is not enough.

  Q32  Jeff Ennis: Can I push on a bit further on the point that Helen was making about who should decide the placement of the child, in an integrated school or a special school, and give you an example? With children suffering from Down's Syndrome you get a number of parents who swear that their child ought to go to a special school, but on the other hand—and I have met both these categories in my own constituency—other parents say, "My child needs to go into a mainstream school and be integrated." Which parent is right, or wrong, and how key is the parental choice in the placement of the child?

  Baroness Warnock: I think maybe both parents are right. It may well be two children and the two different sets of parents are actually both right because their children may be very different from one another. Down's Syndrome covers a huge spectrum. What we know is that a lot of Down's Syndrome children who are not terribly badly affected do extremely well in a mainstream school and there is no doubt about that at all but there are other Down's Syndrome children who actually have as well as Down's Syndrome a lot of behavioural problems and it is terribly difficult even in primary school to get them in the school.

  Q33  Jeff Ennis: You seem to be indicating to me, Baroness Warnock, that parental choice is very important in this process.

  Baroness Warnock: I think it is particularly with these children. Actually, secretly, I do not think much of parental choice in the main body of schooling because my view is that schools are as good as the teachers and children in them, but when parents know the limitations and strengths of their own child then I think parental choice is important. I think what was said ages ago, and nobody probably denies it now, was if a parent wants a child to go into mainstream school and if it can be shown the mainstream school has the resources to spend on that child, then the child has the right to go there. But there is a second proviso which is very important because not all mainstream schools can have all the expertise and equipment. It would be a very expensive way of going about it if they should all have that.

  Q34  Mr Wilson: Baroness Warnock, you have described inclusion as a disastrous legacy in your previous report.

  Baroness Warnock: I thought this would be flagged up!

  Q35  Mr Wilson: You said also that children are physically included but emotionally excluded. I would like to know whether you really believe it is that bad and, if it is, what is your evidence?

  Baroness Warnock: To take your last point, one of the things I said in that pamphlet is that one person's hunch is not enough and actually what you need is a body of evidence properly collected to find out about children with specific disabilities and then I was talking about these autistic children. I think we need to find a way of collecting evidence to show how different disabilities affect different children. As far as my personal evidence goes, of course it is anecdotal because I have not carried out enough research, but I do know for example of one child with Asperger's who cannot make sensible social connections either with grown-ups or children unless he is very, very carefully taken through and people are told, "You have to look him in the face, you have to smile, pretend you find it funny". He cannot find anything funny, he takes everything literally, but the trouble is he has a very high IQ, he is very good at maths and therefore the local authority will not give him a statement because he has a high IQ but he is so miserable at school that he cannot be got to go to school, he lies at home saying, "I wish I were dead" and he is on anti-depressant drugs and that is the only way he can be got to school, and even then he has to be taken out of school one day every fortnight to have a rest and then he cries all day. It is a terrible thing and he is a clever little boy. I think that there could be evidence, which I do not have, that would demonstrate that he is not unique, that there are other children who are in a mainstream school and though they are under the same roof as everybody else they are completely isolated and shrivel up with misery. That is my evidence.

  Q36  Mr Wilson: So you are saying it is a hunch and anecdotal evidence is all you have at the moment. You are not aware of any research or any university which is going to carry out research?

  Baroness Warnock: I am sure the Autistic Society does collect a lot of research and therefore if there is research which is being done it would not be starting from an absolutely blank sheet by any manner of means. There is lots of research on autism. I think the agreed diagnosis of autism comes specifically from this inability to have normal relations with other people, grown-ups or children, without being taught to have them. I think a lot of people learnt about this from that book called—something about the dog in the night.

  Q37  Mrs Dorries: "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

  Baroness Warnock: That is right.

  Q38  Mr Wilson: There is some research which Ofsted are doing, are you aware of that research?

  Baroness Warnock: Yes.

  Q39  Mr Wilson: They make a number of criticisms about how challenging it is for schools and how often ill-defined needs are pitched to a lot of the children. There is a whole series of things. Would you make any comment on that?

  Baroness Warnock: No. Ofsted reports have been, as far as I know, extremely fair because they were very critical of a lot of inclusion and I think they have on the whole, again for children with special needs, told it like they found it. One of the things which makes mainstream schools very hazardous I think for children with disabilities of one kind or another is that—I forget which but I think it was the 1993 Education Act—laid down the regulation that every school should have a special educational needs co-ordinator, or SENCO, and it was supposed at the time this SENCO would be a member of the senior management team in the school and would have considerable input into the general ethos of the school and the way these disabled children were being accepted by teachers and so on. They were at the beginning senior teachers, but I learned only the day before yesterday that there is now a very large number of schools where the SENCO is actually a teaching assistant and not a teacher at all, with no experience and they are no longer a member of the senior management team but someone with peripheral duties to see how many children there are in that school who are getting this, that and the other. That is nothing to do with this policy review but that is a way in which things have got worse now from how they were in the early days of integration.

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