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A new Audit Commission report out today takes a wide-ranging look at how well children with special educational nee...
A new Audit Commission report out today takes a wide-ranging look at how well children with special educational needs (SEN) are served by the education system. It reveals a picture of great variability and much inequity.

One in five children - almost two million in England and Wales - have SEN and one in thirty (275,000) have a statement, which sets out the special provision they require.

The report, Special educational needs: a mainstream issue, reveals:

* How much support a child gets appears to be influenced by factors such as which school they attend, where they live and their family background.

* Early intervention can make a great difference, but it has yet to become the norm. 69 per cent of SEN spending is on children with statements, leaving little scope for wider preventative work (1.6 million children have SEN but do not have a statement). Arrangements for funding SEN provision in early years settings remain incoherent and piecemeal.

* Parents of children with SEN often have great difficulties with school admissions; they feel their choice is limited by a lack of suitable provision locally and unwelcoming attitudes in some schools.

* Over two-thirds of children with SEN attend mainstream schools, but many face barriers to learning such as inaccessible premises, shortfalls in specialist support and exclusion from certain lessons, social and extra-curricular activities. Children with SEN account for almost nine-tenths of permanent exclusions from primary schools and six-tenths from secondary schools.*1

Under new legislation, schools must plan to make their buildings and lessons more accessible and ensure that disabled pupils are not treated 'less favourably' than others. Schools need to be supported in seeking to become more inclusive - requiring investment in staff skills and school facilities. The report recommends that:

* LEA inclusion strategies should set out a clear timetable for developing the capacity of mainstream schools to respond to a wider range of children's needs - and the role of special schools in supporting this transition.

* Schools, LEAs and government should take action to build staff skills and confidence in working with children with SEN. At present, trainee teachers spend as little as half a day on SEN during initial teacher training.

* Government should establish clear expectations of the amount of advice and support that health and social services should provide for children with SEN. Four-fifths of LEAs reported shortfalls, particularly in speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and mental health services.

The report argues that helping children with SEN to reach their potential should be a priority for all schools and recommends that this should be reflected in the way their performance is judged. National tests and league tables focus on the top 70-80 per cent of pupils, so inclusive schools can appear to perform badly. The report recommends that government create new systems for recognising schools' work on SEN, by raising its profile in school inspection and flagship initiatives or by introducing awards for inclusive practice.

Andrew Foster, controller of the Audit Commission said:

'League tables weaken schools' commitment to working with pupils with SEN - for fear they will drag down their position. This has a damaging effect on staff morale and explains the reluctance of some headteachers to admit pupils with SEN.

'For children with SEN, too much depends on which school you go to or where you live. We need to build schools' capacity to respond to the wide range of children's needs in classrooms today. Increasing teachers' skills and confidence is a priority.

'For too long, SEN has been treated as an 'add-on' and seen by many as the responsibility of another teacher or another school. This needs to change. If we are to achieve real and sustainable improvements, SEN must be made a priority for all.'

*1 Includes pupils with SEN without a statment. Based on data collected in 22 LEAs (LEAs are not required to monitor exclusions on this basis).

The full report, Special educational needs: a mainstream issue is available here.


1. Children's needs arise from a wide range of difficulties - cognitive, physical, sensory, communication and behavioural. The support they receive in school ranges from tailored teaching approaches or occasional one-to-one tuition to special provision and around-the-clock healthcare.

2. The report is based on a wide range of research, including visits to 10 LEAs and schools in their area, discussions with parents and pupils, a survey of 50% of LEAs in England and Wales, national data from the DfES and WAG, inspection evidence, and a review of academic literature.

3. Our first report Statutory assessment and statements of SEN: in need of review? raised concerns about how well the statutory framework was serving children with SEN and invited feedback from readers. Its top recommendation - that government should establish a high-level independent review to consider options for future reform - was supported by 80 per cent of respondents.

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