This report on Lewisham Council’s plans to ‘restructure’ Special Educational Needs (SEN) in the borough was published by Lewisham National Union of Teachers (NUT). It provides key arguments as to why these plans will erode the quality of special education provision, not improve it.
Lewisham Council have launched a consultation on changes to the provision for children with SEN in the borough. A small glossy leaflet has been widely distributed to parents and a more detailed consultation paper is available on the Council’s website, www.lewisham.gov.uk. However, important additional information can be found by looking at the paper taken to the January 10th Mayor and Cabinet.
Governors, parents and teachers need to respond to the consultation even though many will be understandably suspicious of the Council’s procedures. We have to ensure that this is a genuine consultation, not just a ‘rubber-stamping’ exercise to allow officers to push through what they have already decided on. This is certainly the fear of parents at Brent Knoll and Pendragon Special Schools campaigning against the proposed changes to these schools. The Council needs to show it is really listening.
In summary, the proposals mean a reallocation of resources from expensive out-of-borough placements into in-borough provision:
In turn, this means more pupils presently taught in Lewisham special schools will be taught within mainstream schools, with fewer given statements than before.
Lewisham NUT wants the Council to make clear exactly how the proposals translate into schools and classrooms. Behind the fine phrases, exactly what funding will be available to provide support to children and their teachers? Is this driven by genuine ‘inclusion’ or by a desire to keep a lid on the special needs budget?
The Council’s leaflet asks questions designed to get the response they are after. Lewisham NUT think these are the real issues:
In 2006, a report was produced by the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge on the “Costs of Inclusion”, commissioned by the NUT (for full report see www.teachers.org.uk). Some of its conclusions were:
1. “In general teachers are positive towards the principle of inclusion. They believe it is not only good for many children who would previously have been in special schools but also for their classmates who learn important lessons about tolerance/diversity.
But they express concern about the ability of schools to provide a suitable education for children with complex emotional and behavioural needs. There are young people who thrive in the mainstream environment. There are others for whom it can be difficult or even threatening, and whose needs are not met by its conventions”. Will these proposals lead to pupils being unsuitably placed in mainstream schools?
2. “Increasing the range of needs and abilities within the ‘mainstream’ classroom has had a major impact on the nature and balance of teachers’ work. The presence of even one child with complex needs without relevant support and resourcing could be enough to upset the balance and flow of teaching and learning for all. In disadvantaged areas, strategies which may work in more stable situations do not apply. Here the critical ‘balance’ shifts so as to make effective teaching nigh on impossible. It is only with exceptional dedication that teachers cope with the unpredictability of day-to-day life. It is in these circumstances that lack of resources and insufficient expertise hit hardest. There is often a critical mass of unmet needs that overwhelms school staff and creates a downward spiral of achievement”. Will these proposals upset the balance of teaching for all pupils?
3. “If inclusion means anything it is the right to be taught by a suitably qualified teacher. Currently that principle is frequently breached. It is widespread practice for special needs pupils to be put almost entirely into the care of Teaching Assistants”. Will there be sufficient numbers of specialist SEN teachers employed?
4. “There is a significant lack of expertise and professional development in meeting a wide spectrum of needs. School staff are too often left to fall back on common sense or ‘instinct’ as there is very little specialist training. Inability to meet the range of need leaves many teachers with a sense of guilt, worrying that they are letting down both the children with special needs, who they feel inadequately skilled to deal with as well as the rest of the class whom they are denying attention”. Will there be sufficient professional development and specialist training?
5. “Provision of appropriate resources could go a long way to meeting needs but in almost all primary and secondary schools increasing demands are not matched by resources, in term of staffing as well as classroom materials and equipment. Additional and strategically targeted resources for professional development are of the highest priority, together with realistic levels of staffing and ongoing expert support for teachers”. Will there be sufficient resourcing for genuine inclusion to take place?
6. “Special provision in the form of Pupil Support Units off-site, or learning zones within schools, should be tailored to need, expertly staffed and not merely a form of containment and diversion for SEN pupils”. What provision of expert staffing and resourcing will be made available for ‘specialist resource bases’ in the specified mainstream schools?
The Council points to a recent OFSTED Report, “Inclusion: Does it Really Matter Where Pupils are Taught?” in support of their proposals. But OFSTED’s main finding was that good quality provision for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities existed in both mainstream and special schools. Mainstream schooling could prove particularly effective but only “when certain factors were securely in place”, namely, “ethos; provision of specialist staff; and focused professional development for all staff.” Will that be provided under these proposals?
After all, OFSTED has also found, that “special schools in Lewisham have all been assessed over the last 18 months as being of high quality”. (quoted from the consultation document). Can that same high quality be guaranteed under these proposals? If not, then the Report would not support the Council’s suggestions. OFSTED’s emphasis is on seeking quality, not the type of provision that provides it.
The OFSTED Report also contains some other pertinent comments for consideration:
“LAs should evaluate and take full account of the impact of provision and services on the outcomes for children and young people before any strategic reorganisation of services”. The Consultation Document does not appear to provide such an evaluation. The impact of present services, compared to the likely impact of the proposed changes, needs to be clearly assessed in advance.
“Pupils who worked with specialist teachers made greater academic progress than when they had to rely on other types of support, including teaching assistants”. As above, will there be sufficient numbers of specialist teachers employed?
Specific training from specialist teachers and professionals from other agencies was particularly effective, but it needed to be regular. Staff required ready, informal access to their specialist colleagues to discuss questions as they arose”. As above, what regular training, as well as informal contact, will be available?
Lewisham special schools will have two main additional pressures on them:
a) Supporting children with more complex needs that would previously have been taught in out-of-borough placements. The Mayor and Cabinet paper stated that “over a five year period up to 97 pupils … would be supported locally”.
b) Meeting increased need for ASD provision based on national trends predicting an increased incidence of autism. The consultation document paper forecasts a steady increase in young people with statements for ASD. At a conservative estimate, this will add at least 100 additional pupils with high needs into the borough’s special schools over the next five years. Some of the special schools will, at the same time, reduce in size to allow them to cater for these more complex needs.
Meadowgate and Pendragon schools will be closed and reopened as a single new 5-19 school on the Pendragon site. The consultation documents show a reduction from 193 11-16 places down to 120 in all, but 110 from 11-16 – a loss of 83.
Brent Knoll school will also be redesignated as a school for children with complex needs and its primary age group phased out. Brent Knoll will reduce in size from 128 places to 84, but 74 at 11-16 – a loss of 54 (effectively its primary roll).
The consultation leaflet states that “the number of places will be made up by places in the new specialist resource bases”. The figures say otherwise:
Additional places required for increased complex needs: 100
Loss of places by reduction in size of special schools (83+54) 137
Additional places that would be required in mainstream schools: 237
Places being created in the seven specialist resource bases: 149
The proposals therefore mean a significant shift of pupils with special needs from special school to mainstream settings. While some children can be supported through the specialist resource bases, there will be insufficient places available and many will be fully placed in mainstream classes. It will also create additional pressure on mainstream school places in the borough.
The plans depend on special schools being able to support pupils that are presently being taught in out-of-borough placements. But the Mayor and Cabinet Paper pointed out that some special schools state “they cannot meet more complex needs”. Will schools have the expertise and resources to meet complex needs previously catered for in out-of-borough provision?
Special schools will also develop their outreach role in a similar way to how New Woodlands School presently helps provide a behaviour support service. The Mayor and Cabinet paper estimates there will be funding for the equivalent of an additional six full-time staff across all the special schools for outreach work across all areas of need. Will this be adequate provision to support schools, especially in ASD?
The NUT and OFSTED’s national research show that inclusion in mainstream settings can only be successful with sufficient resourcing, specialist staff and training. The consultation paper does not show how this quality of provision will be ensured.
For example, the Mayor and Cabinet paper suggests that up to 40% of the profile of children now at Brent Knoll would be taught in mainstream schools. But it also acknowledges that parents wish their children to stay at special schools because of their bad experience with mainstream schooling. Don’t these parents have good reason for believing that mainstream placements are inappropriate?
The Council proposes that the specialist resource bases will be able to provide the same high quality provision as presently exists in special schools. What will be the staffing ratio in these bases compared to special schools? For how much of the time will students have individual support? What opportunity will specialist staff have to support pupils in mainstream classes or for outreach work? The Council needs to provide a lot more detail about how this provision would work in practice.
The NUT fears, as shown above, that many pupils with needs previously met within special schools will now be placed inappropriately in mainstream classes, without sufficient support. As discussed in the Cambridge research, this will help neither these children, nor their teachers, nor the rest of the class. While special schools will be reducing in size to cater for more complex needs, mainstream classes will remain too large for staff to meet the individual needs of the pupils.
We fear schools will also find that the money delegated to them to meet special needs will prove insufficient. A new funding mechanism will be introduced from April 2007 which will no longer be based on statements for pupils with lower needs on the SEN matrix. Instead, funding will be delegated on a historical basis to groups of schools to pool resources for meeting SEN. Will delegated funding be sufficient to meet the increasing needs that could result from these proposals?
The NUT is concerned that staff in special schools could lose their posts.
What will be the loss of posts at Brent Knoll & Pendragon/Meadowgate?
What guarantees are there about job security when Pendragon and Meadowgate schools are closed and reopened to become a new school?
Will staff be redeployed to the resource bases or other special schools?
Support for pupils with behaviour, emotional and social difficulties
One other issue that is not sufficiently addressed is that of support for pupils with Behaviour, Emotional and Social Disorders. OFSTED’s report found that “pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) were disadvantaged in that they were least likely to receive effective support and the most likely to receive support too late”. Unfortunately, the consultation document only contains the briefest of paragraphs on this issue (on page 14).
Given the social make-up of the borough, it is not surprising that many schools face pressures from pupils with BESD. New Woodlands will continue to provide its support service, but none of the existing or new specialist resource bases will specialise in BESD.
The Consultation document predicts that pupils with statements for BESD will fall from 260 to 98. It is difficult to understand what this prediction is based on. The NUT fears that the Council is underestimating the level of need in BESD and needs to allocate additional support to schools and pupils in this area.
Building Schools for the Future (BSF)
The Mayor and Cabinet paper contains many references to BSF. This funding stream is funding considerable capital costs for changes to secondary sector buildings across the borough. This could include the newly designated Brent Knoll and some of the Pendragon/Meadowgate new school. The sale of the Meadowgate site would help pay for some of the work. The NUT are very concerned by a sentence in the Mayor and Cabinet report stating that “A requirement of the capital funding provided by BSF is that Lewisham increases opportunities for children in mainstream schools by developing partnerships of mainstream and special schools and specially resourced provisions/units in mainstream”. If BSF has already decided that specially resourced units in mainstream schools are a “requirement”, can this be genuine consultation?
The new ‘competition’ rules
Under the new Education Act, the Council can’t simply set up a new school to replace Meadowgate & Pendragon. It is likely to have to go out to ‘competition’ to see if there are other organisations who wish to run it. The new school could be run by an outside body and lose its status as a Local Authority “community” school.
Social care for adults with special needs
A comment by the Executive Director for Community Services in the Mayor and Cabinet paper angered parents of children in existing special schools: “If children and their families receive special school provision, it can result in unrealistic expectations of the social care services they receive as adults”. The NUT would hope that, even if provision of services for adults are inadequate, we could at least provide high quality support for children and young people while in our schools.