Memorandum submitted by TreeHouse
1. We believe that the key issue is lack of parental confidence in the objectivity of the assessment. But we feel that confidence can be increased without separating out assessment from provision. Mechanisms which might achieve this increased confidence include second opinions, peer review, greater status and independence for professionals involved in assessment and a national code of professional practice for the assessment of children with SEN/disabilities that covered all professionals involved.
2. We also believe that there needs to be far greater transparency in the system around funding. That local authorities should provide arms length and truly independent Parent Partnership Services. Much more needs to be done to develop the capacity of mainstream schools to meet the needs of pupils with additional learning needs. We need to provide local authorities with more powers to challenge those schools that are not using delegated SEN funding effectively and for the purposes intended through this delegation.
3. TreeHouse is the national charity for autism education. It runs a special school for children with autism and campaigns for improved autism education services nationally. It was established in 1997 by the parents of newly diagnosed children with autism in response to the huge unmet national need for specialist autism education. TreeHouse is in contact with thousands of parents who have children with autism across the UK, the majority of whom have struggled to access education for their children. TreeHouse runs a pioneering and innovative pro-inclusion special school which currently educates 54 children with autism. All of the children have statements of SEN and are funded through this mechanism by their local authorities.
4. TreeHouse is delighted to have a further opportunity to give evidence to this inquiry on Special Educational Needs (SEN). We are particularly grateful to the Committee for not only having initially chosen to investigate this area but also for showing such tenacity in their investigations.
5. As the autism education charity TreeHouse hears directly from many parents concerning their frustrations with the statementing process and it is from this perspective that we are submitting evidence. Autism is unique because there is no other condition of such complexity, affecting so many children in the UK, about which so little is known and for which society's response is currently so inadequate. 1% of school-age children are on the autistic spectrum and 27% of them have been excluded from school, the majority more than once (ONS, 2005). Unlike for some other special educational needs, society still does not know how to educate children with autism. Yet the absence of appropriate education can mean that some children with autism never acquire even the most basic skills - speech, functional communication or self care.
6. One of the greatest barriers to progress for children with autism is low expectations. Too many children, particularly those who are 'passive' and do not disrupt the education of other children, are merely kept safe in schools rather than educated to their full potential. TreeHouse has shown that children in our school can make real progress when their needs are accurately assessed and appropriate interventions are put in place. We have also shown that where this is done those whose behaviour might otherwise be very challenging can learn and develop..
How might assessment be undertaken independently without the establishment of a new separate agency?
7. We believe that the key issue is lack of parental confidence in the objectivity of the assessment. But we feel that confidence can be increased without separating out assessment from provision and that much can be learned from other systems where the same agency is responsible for both assessing and meeting need but where confidence does not seem to be an issue; for instance in the health service. One of the lessons which we feel could be drawn directly across is that of the second opinion.
8. In a medical setting a doctor must respect the patient's right to seek a second opinion in order to provide patients with good clinical care. This right for patients is now a given - it allows for patients' lay views to be taken into account by respecting their view that one doctor's diagnosis may not be correct and also helps to combat errors. The use of second opinions where medical decisions are made is acknowledged in the incapacity benefits system and law courts. The incapacity benefits system has one of the highest successful appeal rates (with 60% of claimants who attend an oral hearing without a representative are successful and 72% of those with a representative are successful), in these cases a medical practitioner must make up part of the appeal panel. In the legal system expert witnesses are used in legal cases to provide an objective second opinion (the Expert Witness Institute can provide more information about the role of expert witnesses), the use of a second opinion in these cases demonstrates the effectiveness of the second opinion approach as a means of governance over medical decisions. We would like to stress however, that this in no way means that we are supporting a medical model of disability, simply that we see this mechanism used in the medical world as one which may have some benefits for confidence in assessment.
9. A further or alternative failsafe would be to establish systems for peer reviews of assessment advice as part of the continuing professional development of advising professionals.
10. In addition, we feel that confidence could be increased if greater status and independence were afforded to those professionals on whose advice the assessment is based. For instance, we have had reports from parents which seem to suggest that the independence of educational psychologists is at times compromised and whilst they may agree with parents as to how best to provide for a child's SEN they will admit that they are unable to do so in their written advice. An ethical professional position necessitates regarding the child and the family as the client and no pressures or factors should be allowed to undermine this commitment. One way of addressing this issue might be to establish a national code of professional practice for the assessment of children with SEN/disabilities that covered all professionals involved.
11. Confidence in the independence of assessment could also be improved by having external representatives on local authority panels involved in the decision making whether to make an assessment or issue a statement or a note in lieu after an assessment has taken place.
Further issues affecting parental confidence/satisfaction
12. Parental confidence is compromised by a lack of transparency in the system. We would like to see parents clearly informed about the roles and processes in the assessment system so that parents understand whether particular professionals are there to advise about needs or make decisions on the part of the local authority.
13. Transparency concerning funding would also be helpful. At present parents often do not understand that much of the money available to support children with SEN is delegated to individual school budgets. Where they are unhappy with the level of support being provided to their child they are too often directed towards the local authority which may challenge the relationship or further exacerbate an already troubled one. This can result in parents being "bounced" or "ping-ponged" between the local authority and the school and back again.
14. Local authorities need to ensure that the parents of all children who have been identified as needing Early Years/School Action, Early Years/School Action Plus or who have a statement are aware of the budgetary provision delegated to the school/setting to meet special educational needs. Clear advice should be given about and what schools should be doing with the delegated funding in order to meet the special educational needs of the children on their roll.
15. We further feel that parental confidence in the local authority would be increased if local authorities were at greater pains to provide arms length and truly independent Parent Partnership Services in the same way as advocacy services are provided to children and young people in the looked after system.
16. Finally, on this issue, we would like to draw the attention of the committee to the fact that parental confidence in the system will only be improved when they feel that school based provision meets the needs of their child.
17. We need to develop the capacity of mainstream schools to meet the needs of pupils with additional needs. There needs to be significant capacity building, changes in ethos, and professional development to ensure that this will happen. The development of greater teacher expertise in special educational needs and disability is central to improvements in the way that the statutory system works. It is critical that all teachers receive training on SEN and disability if parents are to have greater confidence that schools' ability to work with their child and to enable them to learn and progress. Such training needs to be part of all initial teacher training not simply the three and four year teacher training degrees. But even if this were put in place tomorrow it would not impact on the workforce as a whole for some time. Therefore it is crucial that the skills of the current workforce are enhanced. We are hopeful that developments such as the Inclusion Development Programme and the Dyslexia, Communications and Autism Trust will help to address this issue in part.
18. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that some pupils such as some children with autism and others with complex and significant needs will always require provision that costs more than any individual school can be expected to fund from its budget and additional delegated funding will always be needed.
19. At present local authorities find themselves in the unenviable position of being the recipient of much parental anger about the school system and its ability to meet their individual child's needs without the concomitant powers necessary to challenge those schools which are failing pupils with SEN. This is especially the case with schools which are generally successful and receive good OFSTED reports. We need to provide local authorities with more powers to challenge those schools that are not using delegated SEN funding effectively and for the purposes intended through this delegation. We also need to support and inform parents so that they are able to direct any challenge appropriately and constructively.
What models from other countries could usefully be drawn on to demonstrate how separation of assessment and funding for SEN might be achieved?
20. TreeHouse participated in the seminar held by the SEN Policy Options Group and would support the evidence given in their submission which draws on both the new Scottish model and the country reports in the European Agency for Development in SEN report on Assessment in Inclusive Settings (EADSEN 2007). The Scottish model is based on a diagnosis of Additional Support Needs rather than SEN and a Co-ordinated Support Plan with duties on all statutory agencies to contribute.