Special education has special needs

Posted on: 10 March 2011 by Alexander Hay

Who benefits from proposed special education reforms? Not disabled children...

For many disabled children, the going is getting tougher still

At first glance, the government's plans to reform how disabled children are to be educated look commendable. The stated aim, to streamline and rationalise the often torturous process of getting a child's education needs met by a 'statement', is laudable and anything that makes it easier for families who often face great difficulties is to be welcomed.

And it's not as if the old system was acceptable in other ways too. All too often, children with genuine problems were overlooked while 'statementing' was used as a convenient means of removing undesirables from mainstream education.

There was also a middle class bias - given the hurdles and bureaucracy involved, it was often children with well-informed, confident and dogged parents who got 'statemented' (a somewhat Orwellian term), while those from poorer backgrounds often struggled to get noticed at all.

The reforms also come in the wake of the previous government’s experiment in 'inclusion', shorthand for making children with disabilities attend mainstream schools.

This had less to do with ensuring disabled pupils had their particular needs met and more to do with education establishment dogma, views which echo the underlying hubris of the original comprehensive experiment, that children of differing abilities, backgrounds and circumstances can all be jammed into one building and then be expected to learn in a healthy environment.

It was manna from heaven for school bullies across the land, who suddenly found themselves with a greatly increased pool of victims to choose from. Those with physical disabilities or learning difficulties might well have a different perspective on the matter.

But the government's proposals aren't necessarily an improvement. The details betray an agenda other than that of helping disabled children.

To begin with, the proposals invoke once again the Big Society, where the government desperately hopes it can get public services on the cheap by relying on charities.

Letting voluntary organisations play an active part in deciding a child's needs is problematic in two ways - firstly, there is the old issue of subjective, flawed, non-professionals bringing their prejudices to the table as they make life-changing decisions.

Or the potential for corruption: Would a charity be able to resist raising the numbers of people effected by the condition it campaigns against? The more the merrier, especially if it makes people more willing to donate cash, or results in more funding from the government.

An indifferent state system at least has the benefit of being remote enough not to have a vested interest, though of course some might say that's the problem too.

Then there is the proposal to impose a period of 'mediation' before parents can take their grievances to a tribunal. This is simply playing for time, allowing councils to drag out the process in an attempt to make the parents give up. Any proper reform would have been intended to speed the tribunal process up rather than slow it down, after all.

The irony of this, of course, is that the proposals otherwise want the process to go faster, much faster in fact. While the present system is slow and laborious, it has the advantage of being potentially thorough.

The new system would be quick and efficient, at least from a bureaucratic perspective. For a vulnerable child with specific needs, however, it could mean something being missed, and so what they end up not getting what they needed in the first place.

It is, in other words, a set of measures designed to save money by making it harder for children to get help in the first place. Austerity is all very well, but again it seems the vulnerable are the ones paying the highest price. In particular, those children who through no fault of their own seem destined to suffer and miss out on the education they deserve.

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Alexander Hay

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