Cost-cutting fears over SEN reforms

Written by: HTU | Published:

Headteachers are worried that proposals to streamline SEN identification could be nothing more than an exercise in cost-cutting.

Headteachers are worried that proposals to streamline SEN identification could be nothing more than an exercise in cost-cutting.

The Department for Education has confirmed that it is to go ahead with proposals outlined in its SEN Green Paper published last year.

The changes, planned for 2014, will see the rules on what constitutes an SEN tightened up after Ofsted claimed that many low achieving students were being wrongly identified as having special needs.

Formal SEN statements and Learning Difficulty Assessments will be scrapped and replaced with a single Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) setting out the support that a child with SEN will need from birth to 25.

The School Action and School Action Plus assessments will also be axed, with the government proposing to introduce a single category of SEN.

A statement said: “Ofsted reported in September 2010 that many children, particularly those in the School Action category, were wrongly identified as having SEN when their needs were capable of being met from good teaching and pastoral support.

“We propose to introduce a new single category of SEN to make sure the right support to raise attainment is given to the right children and we will provide tighter guidance on which children should be identified as having SEN."

However, headteachers have said that the plans could result in children with genuine special needs slipping through the net.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “I'm most worried about those children with mild learning disabilities or behavioural problems who may in future slip through the net. Tightening the criteria for being identified as having a special need must not be a cost-cutting exercise.

“At the moment, children identified as having lower levels of special need receive targeted funding and support which they wouldn't have access to otherwise. Whether or not they are identified with special needs, these pupils will still need additional support as well as excellent teaching."

The National Association of Head Teachers also fear that the plans will be seen as a bid to slash the numbers of children eligible for financial support.

General secretary Russell Hobby said: “Statements of SEN are used to secure resources and attention for children who need it most. Reducing the number of children with statements will reduce the number of children receiving such support. Parents should be worried about this and the government should think twice before reducing schools' ability to differentiate their provision.

“The system of statements can be overused but the fact is there are indeed more children with special needs. More children are surviving to school age with serious conditions than before; and we increasingly recognise some behaviour patterns as being treatable conditions that would have been dismissed or ignored in previous eras. This is progress.

“Special needs are not a simple either/or but a continuum; a too simplistic approach will let some children slip through the net. Failing to support children when they need it most could also have dangerous consequences later on."

Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, also dismissed claims of an over-identification of SEN: “There has been much media hype over identification of SEN, but for children with autism this is not a picture we recognise. Many parents we speak to have faced a huge battle to get their child the educational help and support they need.

“With the government pledging to change how it identifies SEN, there is a danger that more children with autism will fall through the gaps in the education system."

Despite these concerns, the plans for a single EHCP have been largely welcomed by unions and special needs charities. The EHCP will mean that children face one assessment process covering their education, health and care and that local authorities and health services will be required to jointly plan and commission this support.

Parents of an SEN child with an approved EHCP will also be able to request a personal budget, if they prefer, enabling them to buy-in the specialist support identified in the plan.

However, they will also have a legal right to seek a place for their child in any state-funded school of their choice – something that Mr Lightman warned could be costly for schools. He said: “It is right that parents have a greater say in how money is spent, but SEN provision is very expensive and highly specialised, and for parents to state a preference for any state-funded school is going to be costly. This is one area in which local authorities should have a role in planning and locating provision and coordinating admissions."

Other proposals include a new mediation service for families who are unhappy with the support provided, while plans to give children a right of appeal if they do not like the support they are receiving will also be trialled.

Local authorities will also be required to publish a “local offer", detailing the support which is available to help SEN children.

The strategy comes days after campaigners raised concerns that the swingeing cuts to local authority budgets will hinder local authorities from being able to fulfill specialist support needs.

Both the National Deaf Children's Society and the National Union of Teachers have said that local budget cuts could “vastly reduce" the services that families will need to access.

The government is currently piloting its reforms in 20 local authorities with an interim evaluation due in the autumn and a final report next year.

Children's minister Sarah Teather said: “The current system is outdated and not-fit-for-purpose. Thousands of families have had to battle for months, even years, with different agencies to get the specialist care their children need.

“It is unacceptable they are forced to go from pillar to post – facing agonising delays and bureaucracy to get support and equipment.

“It is a huge step forward to require health, education and care services work together."

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