The Department for Education has announced the reforms to special educational needs in its formal response to the public consultation on its Green Paper "Support and Aspiration". Legislation will be put in place via the Children and Families Bill, announced in the Queen's speech last week.
The changes represent the "biggest reform of SEN for 30 years", with Children's Minister Sarah Teather calling the current system "outdated and not fit for purpose".
More rigorous assessment
The government has announced plans to "tackle the practice of over-identifying" pupils with SEN.
One in five schoolchildren in England (or around 1.6million) have some form of special needs - but a review of special educational needs by Ofsted in 2010 has claimed that many difficulties are exaggerated to explain poor exam results or bad behaviour and children are wrongly placed on the register. It indicated that as many as 450,000 special needs children may simply be underachieving, suggesting that some schools were over-identifying pupils to attract more funding and boost their position in league tables:
“Inspectors saw schools that identified pupils as having special educational needs when, in fact, their needs were no different from those of most other pupils. They were underachieving but this was sometimes simply because the school’s mainstream teaching provision was not good enough, and expectations of the pupils were too low”.
Teacher's unions have strongly rejected these claims and warned of cuts to special needs services.
Sarah Teather said:
"We have a number of children who are identified as having special education needs who actually may have other problems and what's important is that we focus on the other causes and get the support they need".
The government has also announced that an expert panel will be formed to look at how they can stop the “overuse” of "behavioural, emotional, and social development difficulties" diagnosis; currently affecting around 160,000 pupils.
The two most common categories, “School Action” and “School Action Plus” (c.18% of all children, or about 1.4m) which are usually diagnosed by teachers, will be scrapped and replaced with a single school based assessment for all levels of special needs. Fears were raised that these changes would see many children removed from the register, but Sarah Teather said on Radio 4's Today programme: "For me, this is not about numbers".
In addition the current form of "Statement" (a legal document setting out entitlement and needs for the most severe cases of special needs) will be scrapped; a decision which will affect around 2.7% of children. Instead, children who currently have a statement, and young people over 16 with a learning difficulty assessment, will have an integrated single Education, Health and Care Plan up to the age of 25.
Sarah Teather suggested that this would stop the "battle" parents face when having to go from "pillar to post" between different agencies.
Parental Control over budget:
Ministers propose that by 2014 parents of these children with severe, profound or multiple learning difficulties with an Education, Health and Care Plan would also have the right to a personal budget for their support, giving them the power to buy in services rather than relying on the options decided by the local authorities. This power would be optional, with parents able to leave the decision to the local authority if they preferred.
Parents of those children will also have the right to seek a place at any state-funded school.
Changes for agencies and local authorities:
Local authorities will be required to publish the support available to disabled children and children with special educational needs, so that parents know exactly what is available. This would include details of early years, school and college provision as well as transport to and from it; social care services; health services, including speech and language therapy; how to access specialist support; and specialist school provision including training providers and apprenticeships.
In addition, local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups will have to put arrangements in place to ensure that services for children with disabilities and special educational needs are planned and commissioned jointly to guarantee that agencies are working together.
Labour's Shadow Children and Families Minister, Sharon Hodgson, responded to the report saying:
“Parents across the country will welcome the ambition to streamline assessments, remove conflict from the system, and support young people to find employment”, but noted that “the Government must set out clearly how they expect to deliver on these ambitions at a time when specialists are being lost due to deep cuts to council budgets, and the health and education systems are being fragmented – all of which will make it harder to deliver joint working.”
For the government to focus on taking arbitrary numbers of pupils off the SEN register is entirely the wrong starting point from which to reform the system.
Nasen (National Association for Special Educational Needs) responded to the announcement by welcoming “this government’s commitment to supporting those children and young people who have been identified with special educational needs and disabilities”, especially praising the extension of legal protection of special needs provision up to the age of 25. They do however voice concerns about the replacement of School Action and School Action Plus with a single assessment process, noting that “schools will need advice and support on how to implement this new process”.