Hats off to hard working volunteers

One of the privileges of being a parliamentary candidate is the opportunity to meet some amazing groups of people. Shortly after writing the previous post I went to meet a group of parents of children on the autistic spectrum or in the process of being diagnosed. The testimony of each and every one really reinforced the views I expressed in the previous post.

Here are a group of parents battling a dysfunctional education system that is lacking in resources and where many of the primary schools face cuts in funding under the new national funding formula. Light years ago, when common sense prevailed, local authorities had teams of SNASTs working with schools on special needs issues and training. After all, a new teacher cannot learn everything in a 39 week postgraduate course or a three year degree. Indeed, school-based training for teachers may make the exclusion of this type of special need from discussion during training even more likely.

The lack of a training syllabus for leadership also now means it is hit and miss whether new school leaders are properly prepared for their role and helped to understand the place of EHCPs and how to liaise with the health service. Local authority services are also under strain and the government’s policy towards the creation of new special schools seems lacking in definition and awareness of need.

The growing visibility of mental health issues and a greater understanding of autism has helped in some cases, but I am sure hindered in others as head teachers decide the challenges are too great and seek to offload pupils to special schools where with a little extra support and training they could be educated in community schools.

I know that charities such as MIND provide general training for teachers on the whole spectrum of mental health issues, and also that many issues don’t become apparent until pupils are in secondary school. Autism and its associated conditions need early detection and this is helped where class teachers and the other members of the classroom team, especially of the youngest children, are alert to any signs of a lack of development not fully within the normal parameters. Eyesight and hearing issues need monitoring, but so does the signs of a lack of social interaction and sensory issues that may act as pointers.

For all these reasons, special needs is an area that needs careful coordination and sensible use of resources. Government has decided that adoption services are too important to be left to single local authorities and has regionalised the service. I would argue that special needs is too important to leave to individual schools and MATs and is another function where a democratically elected local authority has a real and effective role to play in creating an excellent service. If a local authority fails, take it out of their hands, but also understand why it has failed and create the support for future success. Measuring failure without creating the opportunity for success is no way forward.

So, my best wishes to the parents I met and all other facing challenges they didn’t expect and the system doesn’t want to know about.



High Needs Block

Alongside the consultation on the national funding formula for mainstream schools there is a similar consultation for what is known as the ‘High needs’ group of pupils. This consultation has received far less notice than the mainstream NFF consultation, but is arguably as important for pupils with some of the most challenging of needs.

At the heart of the consultation is the central dilemma facing education in England. Who makes the decisions? The new formula proposes placing a great deal of responsibility with local authorities, as at present. That’s fine, but it ignores the fact that free schools can be established where local authorities might not want them and existing schools can become academies and thus alter their governance structure in relation to the local authority.

The ‘high need’ special education sector has always been a complex area to understand. There are some that think the current proposals out for consultation show that even the government doesn’t fully understand the issues. For example, the government doesn’t seem to have a policy for the use of the often highly expensive independent sector for placements of children where there is a shortage of space or expertise in the state-funded sector. This can be a real burden on some authorities. However, the consultation, in as far as it addresses the issue, seems to opt for the status quo. It might have been helpful to have tried to work out nationally how this expenditure could be reduced without damaging the education of the young people.

The formula has also to grapple with the issue of providing enough places, even if not always filled, and how far to use a methodology where funding follows the pupils, as with pupil unit funding in the mainstream school formula. I am not sure the proposed methodology is going to work as effectively as it might be required to do so. I am concerned that it mustn’t persuade some mainstream academies to ditch existing special provision units leaving the local authority to figure out how to provide a high quality education for these children plus a possible increase in the local transport bill. Local authorities should be able to challenge, if not veto, changes in existing provision not part of a planned and agreed local arrangement, especially where the MAT has its headquarters outside of the authority’s area.

I am worried about the inclusion of IDACI as one of the formula factors. Taken together the total of formula factors seem slanted to special needs caused or exacerbated by deprivation. I understand the concept, but for an authority such as Oxfordshire with limited pockets of urban and rural deprivation, many of our children with high needs don’t live in areas where this factor will be a key determinant. However, those children still need the funding necessary for their education. A review of SEN transport, especially in rural areas and complex non-residential cases, might have raised some issues about planning.

Overall, this looks like a redistribution of the current funding envelope rather than a formula based upon an understanding of the complex needs of this group of young people. It is also a work in progress since the funding of hospital schools isn’t included. I hope when it is a full understanding of the needs of young people with both physical and mental health issues and their relationship with the hospital service is included.

If you haven’t yet looked at this consultation, please do so.

SEN: a trend towards more segregation?

The debate about increasing pupil numbers has generally centred on the need for more primary places. However, it is important that children with special educational needs aren’t overlooked in this focus on the primary sector especially after the recent figures for pupils with SEN published by the DfE. They can be accessed at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/special-educational-needs-in-england-january-2013

On the face of it the story is an encouraging one, with the number of pupils in the three northern regions of England with statements of SEN actually reducing between 2009 and 2013. However, in the other six regions the number of pupils with statements has risen over this period. At first, I wondered whether this had to do with the larger number of academies in the southern half of England during the review period or whether it was a consequence mainly of the falling rolls in the secondary sector. By reviewing the number of new statements issued during 2012 and comparing them with the number of those first made during 2008 it became clear that the number of new statements has risen across most of the country in 2012, except for the East of England where the number remained the same in the two years, but had dipped and the risen during the intervening period.

So, although the overall numbers of children with SEN and no statement has decreased over the past few years much of this may be due to the decline in the secondary school population rather than a shift in attitudes to SEN. As with all statistics one must be wary of reading too much into some of them. For instance, the table for the percentage of pupils with a Statement educated in a local authority area shows West Berkshire right at the top of the local authority list with 4% of pupils with statements of SEN: anyone with a knowledge of the SEN world will know that the presence of the Mary Hare School for pupils with hearing impairments within this small unitary authority will have significantly affected the outcome for the authority on this measure. Had the table considered home authority and the number of pupils with statements placed ‘out of the authority’ the result would undoubtedly have been quite different. No doubt the concentration of SEN provision in various parts of London is behind the fact that Newham has the lowest percentage of SEN pupils with statements educated in the borough of any authority in England except the City of London.

Young people with SEN remain some of the greatest challenges facing our education system and despite the progress being made those from some ethnic and social groups are more likely to feature in the statistics that those from other backgrounds. It may be 40 years since the Caribbean community in parts of North London challenged the apparent overuse of special schools for pupils from their community but, along with the Traveller and Roma/Gypsy communities, pupils of a Caribbean heritage still have a higher incidence of SEN needs than the school population as a whole.

Finally, the trend towards integration of those with SEN into mainstream provision seems to have been reversed with number of pupils attending special schools increasing by more than 6,000 over the past four years. However, it still represents just 1.2% of the total school population. But for many that will be an unjustifiably high figure.