Education & Family

Special needs support promises more parent power

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Media captionWatch: Children's Minister, Sarah Teather: Not all children who fall behind need special educational needs

Parents of children in England with special educational needs could get a personal budget to spend on support for their education.

The idea is part of a major shake-up the special educational needs system.

Ministers want to replace statements - which set out individual children's needs - with education and health care plans drawn up after a single assessment.

But there are warnings that spending cuts will hit any improvements.

One in five pupils in England - some 1.7 million children - is believed to have some form of special needs.

The government claims its proposals, set out in a Green Paper, are the biggest shake up for special needs education for three decades.

'Huge battles'

The SEN system is one of the most controversial areas of England's education system. In 2006, a Commons education committee labelled it "not fit for purpose".

Currently, children who have a severe, multiple health or learning need or disability are supposed to be assessed by their local authority for the support that they need at school.

A statement of special educational needs is then drawn up. This relates to about 2.7% of children in England. A further 21% have a lower level of SEN which is supported directly by the school, sometimes using external services or extra staff.

But parents and special needs campaigners claim councils can be unwilling to "statement" pupils, because of the legal entitlement and possible extra costs that it brings. Many face a long fight to get to the stage where a statement is drawn up.

Children's Minister Sarah Teather told the BBC: "We have heard time and time again that parents are frustrated with endless delays to getting the help their child needs, and by being caught in the middle when local services don't work together."

The government says it wants to address children's needs in a more integrated way, bringing together schools, health and social care.

It also wants to streamline the assessment process by bringing together all the professionals involved with the child, such as doctors, teachers, psychologists and speech therapists, for one single assessment. This would then lead to an education and health care plan that would have the same statutory status as the current statements.

This, it is hoped, will make it easier for the families involved and lead to a more efficient process.

There are also plans to get voluntary groups involved in the assessment process and co-ordinating packages of support for children.

But it is not clear how deep their role would go in drawing up the care plans or how exactly they would be funded, although government money is said to be available.

There are also plans to end the bias towards inclusion of pupils with special needs in mainstream schools.

The chief executive of the National Autistic Society, Mark Lever, said parents too often had to "fight huge battles to have their child's needs recognised, understood and met".

'Savage cuts'

There has been concern that the label "special educational needs" is being applied too broadly, losing focus on those children with the greatest requirements.

In a bid to address this, the government also proposes scrapping the two categories used by schools - school action and school action plus - and replacing them with a single SEN category aimed at raising attainment.

But Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned that the promise of extra support would be undermined by the scale of spending cuts.

"Savage cuts are already being made to many of the specialist services teachers rely on to help them support children with special educational needs," she said.

"Educational psychologists and speech and language therapists are being made redundant as local authorities cut their funding following budget cuts from government."

Labour's education spokesman Andy Burnham agreed that while the proposals were welcome, they were "hopelessly out of touch with the reality on the ground".

"The government's reforms of health and education are fragmenting services, so it's going to make it much harder to get the sort of integrated services that the Green Paper speaks of," he said.

Mr Burnham said the abolition of primary care trusts and the diluting of the role of local authorities in running schools would both make it harder to co-ordinate services.

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