The Challenges Facing Leaders in Special Education

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011 by Matthew Payne

Those providing education for children with special needs are like the rest of the school sector entering a new paradigm as a result of the election last May. They are very much moving from a heavily ‘top down’, prescribed era to one with potentially a great deal of local determination; an old world to a new world.

This piece is based on my spending the day with a group of special school leaders who were attending a regional network meeting. (N.b. ‘regional’ is already associated with the ‘old world’ and the current funding for the network ends on March 31st.)

The forthcoming Special Educational Needs Green Paper is being viewed as heralding the biggest recasting of this area of practice for more than a generation. The government has been heavily influenced by the model of provision in place in the Netherlands, and as a result it is being strongly hinted that there will be a return to a medical model of diagnosis. Such a model would put clear water between educational special needs and the wider definition of disability described in the Disability Discrimination Act and the recent Equalities Act.

A result could be that only those with a medical diagnosis would be eligible for a statement of special needs and therefore the attached funding. This would serve those with severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties but could have major implications for the provision for those with emotional and behavioural spectrum disorders. Such changes, coupled with the ending of funding for mainstream school action and action plus support, means that the maintained sector tranche of special schools could have a narrower client group than now and a number of children will be left to manage in mainstream settings without support.

The cuts in local authority budgets is making the shift described above occur more quickly in some areas than anticipated. The Green Paper will not go White and become law before 2012 but in one local authority from September all those with a moderate learning difficulty transferring to secondary phase will not be offered a place in a special school; instead they will be expected to attend a large mainstream setting, without support.

The Education Paper that was released last Autumn opens up the opportunity for special schools to become academies, but along with many in the mainstream, heads are waiting to hear and see the experience of colleagues who make the jump before committing. As it currently stands, special school budgets are not being hit as hard as other schools so the financial driver to become an academy is not as powerful.

The paper also makes large the need for England to close the gap on other countries’ attainment levels as described in the PISA tables from the OECD. The point was strongly made at the network meeting that in many countries with whom we are compared some children with special needs are not part of the school system. England suffers by holding to the principle established in the 1980s of universal provision.

This country’s school leaders are all seeking to find a way forward following the paradigm shift, and those leading in special schools mirror this, but the added changes in provision anticipated, to be outlined in the Green Paper, mean that the shape, size and purpose of the SEN education world will look very different in a few years.

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