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TX: 10.05.04 – CAMPAIGNERS CLAIM THAT CHANGES TO SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS FUNDING ARE MAKING IT HARDER FOR PUPILS TO GET SUPPORT

PRESENTER: WINIFRED ROBINSON

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY

ROBINSON
If you have a child with special educational needs then you may know how difficult it can be securing the necessary support from school. If you're unhappy with what's being provided then you must ask your local education authority to organise an assessment of your child so that you can get something called a statement of his or her needs. This statement is a legally enforceable contract and the support that it says is appropriate must then be provided for the child. The problem has long been one of delays in education authorities agreeing to carry out these statements or refusing to do them at all on the grounds that they're unnecessary.

Now the Government would like much less reliance on statements. Over the past few years it's asked for more of the money for special education needs to be paid directly to schools. But it may be that this policy is making life harder for children with special needs. You and Yours has obtained figures which show that over the past three years appeals against decisions to refuse a statement have risen by more than half. Our reporter Tom Parker spoke to one mother - Marilyn Angel in North London - who's had to fight for 15 months to get support for her son Dean who has special educational needs.

ACTUALITY
Hello, can I have a kiss please? Come on then.

ANGEL
We first had concerns about Dean in January 2002. Then in September he started in reception and then about six weeks later, in the October, I was called by the school - the class teacher had expressed significant concerns about Dean. He seemed unaware how to interact appropriately with his peers and he'd approach other children that he didn't know wanting to play, he wouldn't verbalise that he wanted to play he would just sort of barge in and start playing and they would get hostile towards him, he couldn't read the hostility, there'd be lots of confrontation and I left that day feeling pretty depressed.

ACTUALITY
Okay get in the car, good boy, do your seat belt up. Show Tom that you can do it. He's just learnt this.

ANGEL
In the December 2002 we saw the paediatrician and she made a probable diagnosis of high functioning autism of the Asperger type and dyspraxia. So we immediately put forward a request for a statutory assessment and that's basically a process whereby the local authority assess the child and then make their recommendations. Unfortunately in the January the LEA had refused.

ACTUALITY
Oh I can't feel it.

Has it gone now?

Yeah it's gone to the flat bit now.

Shall we go into the playroom?

ANGEL
We lodged our appeal to the special educational needs tribunal and we received a date when our hearing would commence. In the meantime because the LEA had refused to assess him we had to build up our own evidence portfolio of why Dean needed this assessment - in effect we were having to do our own assessment. So we had to pay for a private occupational therapy assessment, which concluded that out of 14 areas Dean had 11 definite problems and he recommended a minimum of 25 hours one-to-one support in the classroom.

I've got a number of files here - this is Dean's SEN file and then I have another file which is all the correspondence with the LEA.

The hearing decision stated: "All of the experts have reached approximately the same conclusion so far as the level and type of support needed to meet Dean's needs and that to delay the process would be potentially damaging to Dean and to his long-term education."

ACTUALITY
I don't like working.

You don't like working?

No. That's just boring stuff.

PARKER
You won the tribunal, you had all this evidence, did the LEA take notice then?

ANGEL
Well for the first time in quite some time I felt relieved and confident that now the LEA would meet their legal duty to meet Dean's special educational needs. The assessment commenced immediately after we'd received the decision and it was completed on September 12th 2003. We received the proposed statement which offered nothing in the way of one-to-one support in school and nothing in the way of occupational therapy. We were devastated. And it was quite clear, as time was going by, that Dean was falling more and more behind and that things were becoming more and more difficult for him in the classroom. So we then lodged our appeal papers to go to appeal, yet again, and we received a date of the 10th March. Then on the 2nd March - that's eight days before the hearing was due - we received a telephone call from the LEA saying that they wanted to settle the case.

PARKER
Now it's taken you 15 months to finally get the treatment that Dean needs, what advice can you offer to other parents who might be in similar situations?

ANGEL
I would say you have to keep fighting. One of the concerns I have is that I consider myself to be reasonably educated, competent, strong woman and I have found this a very difficult emotional journey, it's made me feel very impotent as a mother to know that my child is going into school everyday not coping and I cannot give him the help that he needs. And the LEA put a brick wall in front of me and the school and my child and I find that unforgivable.

ROBINSON
Marilyn Angel. I'm joined now by Yvonne Spencer, who's deputy director of the Children's Legal Centre, it's a charity based at EssexUniversity and half of its casework is special educational needs.

Are parents finding it harder to get statements now that more of the funding for special educational needs is going directly to the schools?

SPENCER
They most certainly are and what is particularly concerning is that it's the parents of children with very complex special educational needs that are having these problems. What was interesting, listening to Marilyn Angel, is that as she identified she's a well educated parent, it's a very complex process - it took her 15 months - parents who aren't as on the ball as she has been can actually see their children's education disappearing for years and it's impossible to make up the ground that's lost. So it is a major concern for us.

ROBINSON
Why is it then do you think that the local authorities are refusing to provide these statements?

SPENCER
Well I think this may sound rather cynical but this is all about money and resources. We have heard off the record from officers in some LEAs that they work to a percentage. So, for example, in their county they will only statement x percent of children. So it's led on that basis, which is due to their budget, rather than needs led because x number of children actually need a statement.

ROBINSON
So it's a form of rationing?

SPENCER
Yes absolutely.

ROBINSON
Has it been affected then by the decision to delegate funds from the local education authority towards the school to provide for special needs because these statements in themselves are very costly to produce and the Government's idea is that why waste the money on the statement, why not just give the money to the school?

SPENCER
We have seen a significant reduction in the number of LEAs who will agree to statement. And as you've identified that has in turn had a knock on effect because there are half as many appeals again to the tribunal. Now it costs in excess of £3,000 for an LEA to take a case to the tribunal, now wouldn't that money be better spent on carrying out timely assessments of these children?

ROBINSON
Dr Rona Tutt is in the studio with us, she's just taken up her position as president of the National Association of Head Teachers and she's a former head teacher of a special school, she takes a keen interest in special educational needs. In your experience are parents finding it harder to get statements?

TUTT
I think it's very difficult to make a general statement because there is so much variation now in what happens from local authority to local authority. I think in some cases this may very well be true but it's not all a negative. Obviously parents need to be reassured that if they have children with very complex long-term special needs that their needs will be met. But as has already been touched on we don't want all the money to be swallowed up in the process and delay the time the child actually is able to receive the help he or she needs.

ROBINSON
But the idea behind this, Dr Tutt, was that schools should have the money for special needs and that this whole business shouldn't be necessary - what's going wrong?

TUTT
Well I think some local authorities are doing imaginative things to try and put more money into schools and to reassure parents that the needs can still be met without necessarily having to go the full way of having a statement. For instance, at least one authority, and there may well be others, are looking at only providing statements if children actually need a special school provision and then that would more than halve the number of children actually needing to be statemented and would free up an enormous amount of money. But I quite understand parents' concerns, they must know that their particular child's needs are going to be met.

ROBINSON
Graham Lane speaks on education matters for the Local Government Association, he's a councillor in Newham. Do you think that schools are simply spending this money that is meant to go on special needs on something else?

LANE
Well the local authority and the governors need to have a proper dialogue to make sure they don't and I think the majority of them are not, they are diagnosing the needs of the children at a much earlier age, therefore preventing the need to statement because things are put into place which immediately deal with that child's need.

ROBINSON
You see that's complete reverse of what we have just heard isn't it.

LANE
Yes it is but unfortunately the individual case doesn't prove the general.

ROBINSON
Or from Yvonne Spencer, of the statistics we have got from the Department which show that the number of appeals against refusal for a statement gone up by more than half.

LANE
Well there's an understanding why that happens because there's people - a lot of parents think that if they get a statement they will get more specific help for their specific child, that doesn't always work out the case and the statement process is not only expensive - it's long winded and bureaucratic and not very user friendly. What we need to do is to meet the needs of the child as soon as we possibly can on that entry into education and that is why we are putting more money to be spent on the children by early diagnosis. In fact only about 2-3% of the children ever qualify for a statement and I never thought that was probably the best way of always sorting out that child's needs. We need to have the staff in school who can meet the needs of the children with special educational needs and we need to make sure that that is done at the earliest stage as possible, which means delegating more money for the school to spend on special educational needs and then having a dialogue properly with the governors and the head to monitor that that is happening but then most heads want to do that anyhow because they want to raise the standards of all the children in their school, including those with special educational needs.

ROBINSON
Dr Tutt, who monitors how the school spends the money at the moment?

TUTT
Well the governors obviously have responsibility, as does the local education authority and I think it's generally agreed that perhaps there hasn't been as much accountability in the system as there should be and that's an area that needs to be looked at.

ROBINSON
Do you think they are spending the money on other things?

TUTT
No, I think they will make every effort to put the needs of special educational needs children as a high priority. Having said that, of course, when you hit a particular funding year - as happened in last year's funding round where some schools in the overall sum that they had was insufficient to employ the staffing that they needed for the majority of children - there is then a problem in perhaps making sure that the staff who work particularly with special needs children, not the statemented ones but the ones who have general special needs at a lower level, who are often on part-time or short-term contracts, there is a difficulty in retaining their services if the overall global sum is insufficient.

ROBINSON
So the answer then to my question - Are they spending the money on other things? - would be yes when they're really pushed yes.

TUTT
If they're absolutely pushed that may have to happen. But obviously everybody regrets that and we need to get the funding right.

ROBINSON
Graham Lane, do you think there's a case for ring fencing this money, given that the misery that it causes when children can't get the support at school that they need?

LANE
Well there would be a way of changing the regs to make that sort of money ring fenced in some sort of way but at the same time you have to at local authorities and governors to make sure that the children with special educational needs are getting the money that is delegated to them to be spent. But in addition to that you must also remember there's lots of other children with special educational needs who actually don't get a statement. The Government actually are about to issue an initiative with local government to work not only with elected members but with governors to make sure that this is more accountable and the parents can be assured that they are going to get their help for their children because that's what drives them to the statement - they get a fear that their child is not going to get the resources that they need. We've got to make sure, particularly those who are elected and appointed to governing bodies, that the children do get that.

ROBINSON
Yvonne Spencer, the Government has said that it intends for more of the money for special education to be moved from the education authority to the school itself, what do you think the impact of that is going to be?

SPENCER
I think for those children whose needs are just so complex I think the effect this will have on them is that they will be kept in mainstream schools for longer than is really good for them. We have some head teachers who support our appeals to the tribunal because they believe that some of these children should be in specialist schools. And I just think it's wrong to treat all children the same - some children, as I say, their needs are so complex they need to have a statement and they need to go to a special school that can provide for their needs.

ROBINSON
Yvonne Spencer, Rona Tutt, Graham Lane thank you.

Well listening to that discussion was the education minister Cathy Ashton and she joins us now from the Department for Education.

Do you accept that by giving schools more of this money for special education, however well intentioned it is, is actually making it harder for parents to get these legally binding statements of need that trigger the help their children must have?

ASHTON
I think what's really important is to make sure that when schools have got money that they use it appropriately and wisely. And what I would say to Marilyn is that was a good example of how Dean, in a sense, had to go through, what I call, the spiral of failure before the resources kicked in, in the way that they should have done. What I want to see is parents feeling more confident about a system that says to schools - here are the resources for all of your children, they include monies for special needs, they include monies to ensure that special needs children get the support that they need and to raise attainment for every child in every school.

ROBINSON
Do you think there's some confusion in schools about what exactly they ought to be able to provide for a particular child?

ASHTON
I think there's definitely the need - and we've talked about this in our strategy that we've just published - to support schools effectively in ensuring that they understand the needs of their children and to work with, for example, special schools who are very important and with other organisations and agencies who can offer them that support, as well as the local education authorities. So there is a need to be sure about it.

ROBINSON
So you're saying some of them don't know what they're supposed to provide?

ASHTON
No I'm not saying that, what I'm saying is that because of the range of different needs that children have we have to make sure that teachers feel confident that they understand the needs of all their children and they're able to support them. And that means making sure that we have those resources available to them.

ROBINSON
But until that happens do you accept that what has been done is that the gatekeepers - the local education authorities - are making it much harder for parents to get hold of the documents they need that are these legally binding contracts?

ASHTON
Well the points I think both Rona and Graham were making is that if you look across our local education authorities we've got some very good examples of very high delegation of resources to schools but within a framework that's accountable - that says this money is available to you, yes you can use it flexibly - because that's very, very important for children with special needs, that they're able to get the kind of support that's needed, that may be changing over time - but also making sure that they recognise we expect to see the outcomes for those children and that's really critical.

ROBINSON
There can't though, can there, be less reliance on statements until schools are willing to support children without them?

ASHTON
Well lots of schools do support children without them and one of the areas that we've looked at a lot is about early intervention to support children. The early recognition of special needs, the understanding and support that families need through - what we call them - their early support pilots, working with children from the very earliest times and their families to understand what they should be receiving and to understand what the needs of their children are. And then making sure that that translates into the school system in a way that says it's not just about a legal process, it's about the experience the child has within the school.

ROBINSON
Cathy Ashton thank you.


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