Education! Education! Education!

The Special Educational Needs (“SEN”) system is a vital aspect of educational policy in the UK that allows pupils to receive the additional support needed to complete their education. Disability Horizons correspondent Sam Hardy explores the impact of proposals recently announced by the UK’s Coalition Government.

Given the central role of the education in any society, a well-structured and effective system of providing specialist assistance support is of paramount importance. In March 2011 the government launched proposals (a “Green Paper”) to improve the way Special Educational Needs (SEN) are administered in schools across the country.

How does the current system work?

The current system is structured into three tiers; 1) “School Action”; 2) “School Action Plus”; and 3) “Statements”. The first two tiers are where support needs are assessed by a teacher, and involve the school providing support in addition to that which the school already provides such as after school tutoring, counselling etc. The third tier involves a “Statement” being prepared and funded by the local authority, which allows the child to receive the help of a Special Support Assistant (“SSA”) in a lesson or support such as speech therapy, that the school cannot provide unaided without additional funds or expertise. To put things into numerical context, the SEN Green paper states that the number of pupils requiring statements has remained relatively stable but those with SEN covered by the first two tiers have increased.  For example, the numbers of pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties has increased by 23% between 2005 and 2010 to 158,000.

What are the problems with this policy?

However, this system is often cited as being unnecessarily complicated, unwieldy and bureaucratic. By way of example, on average, a child prescribed as having SEN will have to undergo 32 assessments with a variety of professionals as they grow up. Aside from the huge cost implications per person, such assessments can lead to duplication of work that is compounded by complaints from parents that say they don’t know what services their local education authority offers them.

Moreover, the current system importantly fails to take into account the needs of pupils who may need additional medical, educational or social support outside the classroom; or the needs of children who are not classified as “disabled” under the Disability Discrimination Act, such as in the case of children diagnosed with conditions such as diabetes or asthma but who may still nonetheless require assistance.

The resulting dilemma is that, in practice behavioural, emotional and social difficulties and children with disabilities or medical problems are dealt with in the same framework, which has led to various problems such as children being misdiagnosed as disabled when the cause could be due and or dealt with outside that framework in a manner that is not “disability related”. A group of SSA’s I spoke to based at schools in East London and Essex highlighted that “misdiagnosis” of educational support is one of the biggest risks to a pupil’s education experience, as it often leads to lowered expectations being placed upon the pupil. Therefore, it is argued that what is really needed then is a clear redefinition and enforcement of conditions and disabilities to help the provision of appropriate aid to make the ambitions of children with SEN attainable rather than wholesale reform of the system.

What is being proposed?

The Government want to introduce what they call an Education, Health and Care plan to replace the system of statutory assessment and statements so that there is one continuous and integrated plan that is reviewed regularly to adapt to the child’s changing needs more efficiently, and takes into account the numerous sources of help a child may need.

Additionally, the education department want to offer parents greater control over their child’s schooling by offering them greater transparency in the services that parents are offered with closer links, and a greater say in their child’s provision by giving them personal budgets to fund the essentials of what the parent thinks their child needs. This involves removing bureaucratic barriers so that professionals from the different services and the voluntary and community sector can parents much more influence over the services offered.

What are initial views on the proposals?

The same group of SSA’s I mention earlier and parents of disabled children who I have spoken to are wary that the government’s intention to increase involvement of the voluntary sector is simply a way of cutting costs and unnecessarily risks the quality of the support provided to pupils. Other concerns raised include unease over the misuse of personal budgets by parents and the additional bureaucracy created in attempting to account for how money is spent, and fears that schools will try to shift responsibility to parents who for whatever reason may not be as well informed on the sources and quality of support that their child could receive.

What next?

Over the coming months, more detail will be added to the proposals and we shall have to wait and see what ideas the government take from this Green paper and what is intended to implemented.  In the meantime, it would be interesting hearing of any reader’s experiences of the SEN system, which can be contributed in the “comments” section below or emailed to

By Sam Hardy

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