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The statutory framework for identifying and meeting children's special educational needs is serving some children p...
The statutory framework for identifying and meeting children's special educational needs is serving some children poorly, says an Audit Commission report out today.

Statutory assessment and statements of SEN: in need of review? presents evidence on both the shortcomings and strengths of the statutory framework - and concludes that a high-level independent review is needed to consider options for future reform.

While the framework serves some children well, there is evidence that many children and their families are having poor experiences. Key concerns include:

- statutory assessment is a costly, bureaucratic and slow process - a statement takes 6 months to produce and costs an estimated£2500 - but often it 'adds little value' in helping to meet a child's needs, according to parents and teachers;

- many parents found statutory assessment a stressful and alienating process - most of those met by the research team said they 'had to fight' to get a statement;

- statements provide little guarantee that a child will get the support they need in school, due to weak monitoring arrangements in many LEAs and schools and shortfalls in some health and social services for children;

- children with similar needs are getting different levels of support depending on where they live, which school they go to and how assertive their parents are.

The report also highlights aspects of the statutory framework which are valued by parents and professionals. These include the formal recognition of a child's needs provided by a statement, and the advice received from the educational psychology service and other agencies (although often this came prior to statutory assessment). Statements can also provide added rigour to planning to meet the needs of individual children - and pressure on all concerned to work together to this end.

The paper makes recommendations at two levels.

First, action that local authorities and schools can take to help meet children's needs more effectively within the current framework. Twelve recommendations are put forward, based on innovative local practice. They include:

- further delegation of SEN resources - to give schools the means and incentive to intervene at the earliest opportunity, enabling them to meet more children's needs without having to request a statutory assessment; and linked to this.

- the development of rigorous monitoring arrangements so that parents may be confident that their child will get the support that they need in school.

Secondly, the need to begin a national debate about options for future reform. The government has made a number of recent changes, including a new SEN Code of Practice and the SEN and Disability Act 2001. These represent steps in the right direction - but tensions remain at the heart of the statutory framework. In particular:

- LEAs are held responsible for arranging provision to meet the needs of children with statements - but resourcesare increasingly controlled by schools

- some children require the support of health and social services, but these agencies are only required to respond in so far as their resources allow

- statements place unlimited demands on limited LEA budgets.

Given the great diversity of views that exist - some rooted in years of negative experience - the report concludes that a high-level review is needed to consider options for future reform.

Andrew Foster, controller of the Audit Commission, said:

'There is much that local authorities and schools can do to help meet children's needs more effectively. But action at a local level can only take us so far. Our system of education has changed enormously since statements were first introduced, nearly 20 years ago. Much progress has been made in that time. However key parts of the statutory framework are inconsistent with the roles now played by local authorities, schools and other agencies in meeting children's needs.

'We therefore urge the government to establish a high level independent review - to pave the way for a system that is fairer, more efficient and more responsive to the needs of young people and their families.'


1. SEN covers a wide range of needs including learning, behavioural and physical difficulties. 1 in 5 school children has SEN and 1 in 30 has a statement. Statements are intended for children with higher levels of need and are drawn up by the LEA, through a 6-month 'statutory assessment' process, involving health and social services.

2. Statutory assessment and statements of SEN: in need of review? is the first report from an Audit Commission project on children with SEN. It will be followed in Nov. 2002 by a wider report, looking at how well children's needs are being met, in the context of policy on inclusion.

3. The report is based on research in five authorities in England and Wales, including interviews with LEA officers, headteachers, governors and school SEN co-ordinators, structured discussions with parents of children who have SEN and a review of 100 case files of children who have statements. It also draws on a national survey of LEAs and analyses of national data.

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