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August 10th, 2010

This post is an open letter to Sarah Teather, LibDem MP, Minister of State for Children and Families
Dear Minister

A few years ago when you were in Opposition you wrote to me saying that the shortcomings of Inclusion in relation to Special Educational Needs should be addressed by an increase in funding.

If this was right – but I don’t think that it was – then you have a real problem this autumn when you issue a Green Paper with your proposals for SEN.

There is, of course, nothing like real power and responsibility as Minister of State for Children and Families to bring home the truth of a situation. The evidence is now piling up that inclusion was a disaster in the making.

Its shortcomings had nothing whatsoever to do with money. The Labour Government threw money at it like confetti, trying to make it work; it recruited a paper-led army to run it. It was a flagship policy, all complete with target practice under the supervision of OFSTED.  But you heard less and less of the word ‘inclusion’ as time went by, and the flagship was taken out of the line altogether during the last general election.

Putting it quite simply, it was a cock-up by everyone.

The Treasury, advised by accountants Coopers & Lybrand, thought that there were savings to be made by including children with special needs in mainstream instead of special schools. It never occurred to them that mainstream schools would have to employ about 100,000 classroom assistants (now over 200,0006) at about £15k a time to help them cope with the influx after the closure of 100 special schools. Job creation certainly. Cost to the taxpayer a matter of no consequence. There is never a shortage of people living in “wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if” land, and especially in the world of education.

That is not to say that more children with special needs should not be admitted to mainstream schools; that provision should not be made for them there. There will always be winners in the lottery of life; but there are losers too unless you are careful,

What I find necessary to keep saying is that there should always be a choice between mainstream and special schools. As I said in my last post, “Yes” a right to a mainstream education with some sensible caveats. But “Yes” also a right to opt out of mainstream schools to a special school, again with sensible caveats. Neither of these rights can guarantee education appropriate to individual need, but at least they can try to. Don’t be satisfied if it is merely adequate. The Law is not satisfied. You should not be either.

So, when you prepare your Green Paper this autumn I suggest that you start with two blank pieces of paper.

On one of them write what you want to achieve, and on the other how you propose to achieve it.

What you should want to achieve is very simple – meeting the extremely diverse needs of children with special educational needs.

That should be paramount. I know there are those who think it is a bourgeois fad to assert individual need, but maybe they don’t have children with special needs themselves or have not taught them.

As you develop your mission statement avoid all words to do with “social engineering”, words like “inclusion”, “outcomes” and, yes, “equality of opportunity” too. Children don’t want to be social experiments.  They only have one chance.

Adopt instead “value-added” words like “excellence”, “opportunity”, “fair play”. These words will measure the success of your policy.

On the other piece of paper write the words “professionalism and commitment by those who care”.

As you develop these words recognise that local education authorities are not best placed to handle special education on a day-to-day basis. Their boundaries are too small. Their responsibilities are too diffuse, and the financial and political constraints under which they work get in the way. Too often they can’t afford to care.

I know that there are many in Local Government who mean well but they, like everyone else, end up as casualties of a bureaucratic system that constantly short-changes children.

It is important that you grasp WHY?

Let me illustrate what I am saying. Little Johnny is blind. There is a school for the blind outside his local authority area. The local authority will not want the cost of sending him there, and little Johnny’s parents will have a battle on their hands, But there actually isn’t a school for the blind in a neighbouring authority because the catchment area of a single local authority is not big enough to support one. It is a CATCH 22 situation.

I urge you not to under-value professionalism and ignore commitment. When dealing with children with special needs you need both. Mainstream schools often dilute them. That is the price you pay when you rely on classroom assistants – “amiable mums” as they are called – to do the work of professional teachers and therapists.

What do I mean by “professionalism”? A potent mix of talent, self discipline, training, practice over many years, an exquisite care for detail, sorry no nine to five stuff, and preferably no skullduggery. The only way we can properly claim that the British are “the best” at anything in the world is if we start to reassert this.

And what do I mean by “commitment”? Simply service above self.

You really need both of them in all walks of life.

I know that Michael Gove is opening the door to parents to create their own schools. Parents of children with special needs have their work cut out just looking after and bringing up their children without opening schools for them.

If you can establish a strategic partnership with Disability Organisations, and structure a way to harness their knowhow and their concern with a new range of community schools with pooled resources for children with special needs, you can make this a part of your Big Society.

In short, dump “Inclusion” as a watchword and substitute the words “Excellence and Opportunity.” These are the words that should flower in your garden. In my experience they have less to do with money and more to do with attitude of mind.

You might get somewhere if the Coalition asserted these words elsewhere as well, and you didn’t just talk interminably of “austerity” and ”financial cuts”.

Yours sincerely

Alan Share

I have received a reply.  I quote these paragraphs:
‘As you are aware, we will launch a Green Paper in the autumn to look at a wide range of issues for children with SEN and disabilities. Before then we will be looking at the results of the Ofsted review of SEN we are expecting later this summer, in addition to the many reviews of SEN policy in recent years. We will also be listening to the views of parents, teachers and organisations with an interest in this area.

We’ll be looking at things like parental choice. This will mean looking at ending the bias towards mainstreaming, but that does not mean limiting mainstream provision for children with SEN and disabilities. It’s about recognising that each child is different and individual.’

This has all the signs of a “U” Turn in the making, and it is very good news indeed.