Tories Urge Special Needs Reform

The Conservatives are calling for a major shake-up of special needs education in England. A plan the party is considering would remove the assessment of special needs from local councils, which also fund the extra help schools give pupils.

Under the Tories’ policy commission ideas, independent assessors would draw up special needs profiles of pupils, guaranteeing certain levels of support. This, it is hoped, would prevent the system’s “conflict of interest”.

At the moment, a statutory assessment of special needs, known as a statement, can be requested by the school or parents of children whose learning difficulties are thought to be severe. This requires reports from educational psychologists who are employed by the local authority.

The local council then considers this advice before deciding whether or not to give the child a statement of special educational needs – which sets out what level of funding the child should get to support his needs.

The commission, chaired by former government adviser Sir Robert Balchin, said the process leading to a statement was considered by most to be “too long, too adversarial and too costly”. “There is the greatest amount of unease about the fact that local authorities are concomitantly the assessors of children’s needs, the paymasters of the funding and the suppliers often of the special needs provision in schools.”

It continued: “It is clear that, rightly or wrongly, many parents consider that the statement is often made to fit the cash available. They feel that the decision to award a statement should not be made by the body that holds the budget for SEN provision as it creates a conflict of interest.”

The Conservatives also want to see special schools given more freedoms to develop and increase their number of places and services.

The commission proposed creating new special schools with what it calls “special academy status”. This, it argues, would enable them to respond to the loss of 9,000 special school places since 1997. The loss of places is a result of the government’s policy to include all children but those with the most severe difficulties in mainstream schools.

The report added: “Time and again parents have reported the benefits of a transfer to a special school in which their child’s needs can be properly catered for. There is clear evidence that many of these children make far greater progress and are much happier in the sheltered and expert environment of a special school.”

Children’s minister Beverley Hughes said special educational needs were one of the government’s key priorities and that it was proud of its record. “We only this month announced a further £23m to expand the number of special schools entering the specialist schools programme over the next three years. This will mean around 150 special schools becoming specialist SEN schools.”

She added that parents now had more choice, with 18,000 children being taught specially resourced SEN provision within or attached to mainstream schools. “In fact, Ofsted in last year’s report on special needs praised the positive outcomes for children in this type of provision, academically, personally and personally,” she said.

Speaking on GMTV, Conservative leader David Cameron also said there should be more research into the long-term effects of drugs used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Asked about his concerns about the drug Ritalin, he said: “For many parents with children with ADHD it is the right drug and it is vital they get it and if it helps them, that is absolutely right.”

But there was a concern that the prescribing of it had risen quickly. He wanted a review of its use, to find out more about the possible damages.