The long-awaited government consultation document “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability” was published last Tuesday. I have now had time to read it and and some of the early responses to it. My initial response last week was to question whether my research is still of any relevance given that the green paper addresses many of the areas I am interested in and that some of the discussion is underpinned by government commissioned research. I also had a sense that what I am doing might be anachronistic, even before it sees the light of day.
During the past few days, I have been able to reflect on the document and to begin to look at it more objectively. The fact that the green paper acknowledges problems in the existing system and suggests ways of addressing these does not mean that my work is irrelevant. In fact, in some ways it may be that some of the areas I am exploring are of even greater relevance as they are areas which receive scanty attention in the green paper.
The potential strength of the recommendations is a move to a single assessment of SEN and disability culminating in an ‘Education, Health and Care Plan’ which will replace the Statement of SEN. The advantage of this is the potential reduction in the number of separate assessments a child or young person with complex SEN/disability might have to face and the shared responsibility and accountability of Health, Education and Social Care. However, it is unclear from the green paper which children and young people will have the opportunity of this single assessment and at what stage in their development. Clearly, it is applicable to those children with complex needs recognised very early in their life – and the green paper does lay emphasis on early identification of needs – but what of those children and young people who are apparently developing normally, but are a bit quirky and whose differences become evident at a later developmental stage. In particular, at present it is known that many children with Aspergers or HFA do not receive a diagnosis until they are into their primary education years – and some later still.
This leads to a further question. Many of these children with Aspergers or HFA (and others with neurological differences) have a record of behaviour difficulties and possibly exclusions prior to diagnosis. The green paper draws attention to the much higher risk of children and young people with SEN of both fixed term and permanent exclusion from school, but says nothing about the contested diagnoses which lead to some of these young people receiving a diagnosis of an autistic spectrum disorder and others being labelled as BESD. The section of the document discussing BESD is in my opinion the weakest in the whole document.
Although the green paper does focus on raising expectations of the potential achievement level of children and young people with SEN/disability, it is unclear to me how realistic some of the implicit, if not explicit, assumptions are. Yes, children with SEN/disability frequently leave school with lower qualifications than other young people and no doubt some could achieve more given the right support structure, but it is unlikely, I would have thought, that the achievement curve for school leavers with SEN/disability would ever mirror completely that for those with no SEN/disability. However, for high functioning young people, it is crucial that they are enabled to reach their potential rather than under-achieving as a result of missed education through exclusion or inappropriate or insufficient learning support.
Another area addressed in the green paper is that of the role of parents. It is acknowledged that parents frequently have insufficient information in the current system and recommendations are made to remedy this. It is also suggested parental choice will be increased, especially in relation to choice of school. Although there is no doubt parents have strong views about what is best for their children, it is disappointing that the voice of the child and their own aspirations has not been similarly strengthened, except when it comes to appeals where children will be able to enter their own appeals to the First Tier Tribunal. Parents are not necessarily always the best advocates for their children, though this is an area fraught with difficulty. Returning to choice of school, little is said about the continuing role of independent and non-maintained special schools…
There are very clear political themes underlying the green paper. Reducing expenditure is clear through reductions in bureaucracy and in multiple assessments. It is also there, so not so evident in other financial arrangements – who will be eligible for the new personal budgets and what restrictions will there be on their use. Free schools receive a mention – it is suggested that part of the increased school choice will include the establishment of new free schools and academies. The Big society is writ large with suggestions that the local community and voluntary sector might facilitate the new assessment system.
In terms of the recommendations in the green paper being enacted, some things are already being trialled such as short breaks; some things will begin to be trialled later this year, such as single assessments; but implementation of the whole will be over the next few years. Inevitably there will be considerable interest in the SEN community in both the discussion of the green paper, its implications and implementation and the effects of that implementation on the life chances of children and young people. My task is two-fold – to ensure that I complete my research and write a thesis which meets the academic criteria and to find ways of contributing to the debate and analysis of the change over the coming years.