John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Sarah Teather’s tenure at the Department for Education has led to a serious and continuing problem for children with learning difficulties and their parents. Like Baroness Warnock before her, she came to the field with little or no experience, and designed a system that looked excellent on paper but did not work in practice. Baroness Warnock’s committee (1978) replaced the term “educationally subnormal” with the more humane “special educational needs”, to be defined in a Statement, followed by appropriate provision. Alas, the process of writing the Statement was so cumbersome and expensive that the one local authority that tried to carry it out in full – from memory, Cumbria – quickly ran out of money, leading to the resignation of its chief education officer. In time, the term “special needs” became almost as much a source of abuse as its predecessor.
Teather added a letter to the acronym, giving us SEND – special educational needs and disabilities – and replaced the Statement with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), to apply from birth to 25.
Anyone can apply for a plan, and the Local Authority must decide within six weeks whether to carry out an assessment and provide one, with an appeal to an independent tribunal should it decide against it. The plan triggers a budget for the child or young person, and the parent has some discretion as to how it should be spent.
For disabilities that are self-evident before the child starts school, the system appears to work, though the plans are often sketchy. Once they enter school, problems begin. The school has to find the first £6,000 of support itself, which triggers a further £9.000 from the local authority. These sums are a strong disincentive for schools to request an assessment, and for local authorities to carry one out. Schools receiving pupils who already have a plan have to find the £6,000 from their existing budget before they receive any help. One secondary headteacher has told me that his school has 64 such plans. If the school does not spend £6,000 on any individual pupil, they receive no support. The outcome of Ms Teather’s good intentions is the neglect of genuine need.
When support is provided, the quality is often so poor that the pupil would be better off without it. Special needs co-ordinators spend most of their time on paperwork, depriving children of their specialised teaching skills. Most support and teaching is provided by assistants. The best operate to the highest professional standards, but too many have had little or no training, and often resort to doing the work for the pupil under the pretence of “scribing”, an approach which frequently prevents the pupil from learning to write. One school I worked with – an Academy – gave my pupil a laptop instead of teaching him to write, a task that was easy once someone gave some time and thought to it.
One error of the early years of the Blair government was to ignore the good pilot training courses for assistants, and hand the work over to local authorities, which duly focused on “inclusion” rather than teaching.
I do not envy whomever has to sort this out, but there is some better news for Damian Hinds in his attempt to bridge the “vocabulary gap”, which grows up between the children of highly-educated parents and others, and which starts at birth. Alex Quigley’s Closing The Gap provides an excellent analysis of the underlying research, with an approach to tackling the issue in secondary schools that involves both general and subject-based vocabulary. I’ve written about it in more detail here, and recommend it to school governors and training providers.