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.
The Education Select Committee’s report on special needs and disabilities (SEND) is the most detailed and painstaking work in its history, and a source of deep discomfort to the government and everyone concerned with education. Its 130 pages (with 667 footnotes) are a catalogue of errors, chaos, ignorance, and distress. The 2014 Children and Families Act, the work of Sarah Teather, when a Lib Dem minister, has, it says, turned sour, mainly for lack of money, but also because the “major cultural change” required to make it work has not come about.
The Act is, in essence, an expansion of the approach of Baroness Warnock’s 1981 Education Act. This replaced the degrading label “educationally subnormal” with the global idea of “Special Educational Needs”, normally a learning difficulty leading to significantly lower attainment than that of others of the same age group. Each pupil with such a need was to have a Statement setting it out, followed by the appropriate provision. Teather extended eligibility to the age of 25, and included health conditions so that the new assessment was to be followed by an Education, Health and Care Plan. Like Warnock, she did not consider either particular types of need, or what her provision might cost.
Both of these issues caused big problems, both for the governments that had to try to implement the 1981 Act, and for teachers, who could not avoid dealing with the detail of individual needs. In the sixties and seventies, Conservatives would refer to Labour’s programme as “a menu without the prices”. Warnock did not even present a menu, and neither did Teather.
The consequences were immediate. The one local authority that tried to implement her proposals – from memory, Cumbria – immediately ran out of money and sacked its chief education officer. Others protected themselves by developing “staged assessment,” essentially a system of rationing additional teaching and support to match the resources available. I have lost count of the times I have sat with parents, including members of my extended family, battling stonewalling by schools and authorities maintaining that they were meeting children’s needs when everyone in the room knew they were not.
One school took money for individual tuition and provided none at all, arguing that the child received individual attention in a group. Another provided support for a profoundly deaf child only where she might be injured, ignoring her educational needs completely. The addition of health and the extension of the age range, without funding or training, have added new layers of complication and chaos. LAs are producing cut and paste plans, delaying action until forced into it by the threat of appeals, almost all of which they lose, and even then do not have the staff to provide properly skilled teaching. Warnock’s blank cheque has bounced, and so has Teather’s.
So what is to be done? The Committee offers 38 conclusions and suggestions for improvement. All should be considered in detail, and number 25, that councils should be allowed to open special schools if there is no competent alternative, should be accepted at once. Academisation at all costs is ideological purism of the kind we criticise in our opponents, and it is forcing LAs to pay multiples of the true cost of carrying out their duties. Damian Hinds’ idea of hubs within schools to provide additional teaching and to deal with behavioural problems is also important, and I’ve seen this work well in an autism unit in a secondary school. Competence cannot be taken for granted either, and the committee is right to commend Ofsted’s increased attention to SEND in its new framework.
A final point is that the global approach of both Acts has led to a long-term decline in specialised teaching skills, which must be reversed. Not all special needs are the same, and the decline in services for children with hearing and visual impairment is an utter and preventable disgrace. Dyslexia, with the perverse incentive of extra time in examinations following unreliable and gameable assessments, needs a genuinely independent review, and not one dominated by the civil service and interest groups. An inquiry is also needed into autism and ADHD, where genuine cases have become a stick with which to beat schools determined to stamp out poor behaviour. Robert Halfon and his colleagues have put 18 months’ hard work into their report. It will take a lot longer to sort out the mess they have identified.