Guerrillamum's Blog


In which Guerrillamum ponders the impending Green Paper on Special Educational Needs and Disability

Ever since our oldest son first went to school and I became embroiled in dealing with the system for identifying and meeting special educational needs, and the associated legislation, I have wanted this system to be reformed. I had hoped that this would happen through a truly transparent process where interested bodies and other stakeholders would be asked for their views through a robust process of consultation and open debate. Instead on the very cusp of the proposed reforms, when I should be trembling with expectation, I am instead trembling with fear for what these changes might mean for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

So why am I worried? Although Sarah Teather is nominally the Minister responsible for this process, it is possible to detect the Hand of Gove everywhere! Almost unnoticed in the Academies Act is a section which removes the right of appeal for parents to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDT). Instead, all routes of appeal lead only to HIM. And we all know how ‘flexible’ he is, don’t we? Previously it was a more open process adjudicated by independent educationalists who spoke from experience of dealing with all of the issues presented to them in a child’s case.

Why is this so important? We and thousands of ordinary parents like us have been forced to take the extraordinary step of going to a tribunal to make sure that our children can access the curriculum in the same way as every other child. I am worried that the Green Paper will propose new ‘designations’ placing children with challenging or complex needs in a category attracting only a minimal amount of intervention which is delivered at the discretion (or not) of a school or academy. In academies, where parents disagree with the level of help given to their children, all routes for appeal will lead to guess who – the Minister of State for Education. With financial incentives for conversion to academy status more and more schools will seek it and more children with special educational needs will be left without the right of appeal to an independent body.

This government has already demonstrated some very strange attitudes towards disability. On one hand it has produced workable guidance for the Autism Act (though has yet to come up with the money), and on the other some truly dreadful attacks have been levelled at Disability Living Allowance. Maybe this inconsistency is because this government IS a coalition. It’s really frightening to think what the combination of Gove’s ideology and Tory cost cutting could do to this Green Paper.

However, I am still hoping for the best. Hoping for a considered, fair, and most importantly, fully funded system in which children with SEN & Disability have their rights to access to an appropriate education recognised. In a Big Society this would happen because these children can also make valuable contributions. We just need to value them first. Oh, and ‘SHOW ME THE MONEY!’



Spending on Special Needs faces cuts…

Over the past months I have watched the campaign to discredit children with special educational needs unfold with increasing alarm. I have listened as the spin doctors eased into the public consciousness words and phrases such as ‘over diagnosed’, ‘sharp elbowed parents’, ‘too many children have statements’, and (a real corker this one) ‘SEN is simply bad behaviour’. In terms of schools, Toby Young and others like him want something better than what is currently offered to all children in their local areas. Rather than improve or expand these schools for the benefit of all, the government is handing extremely large amounts of money over so they can set up Free Schools for the few that are more to their liking. Suddenly, it appears that the children of already well off and motivated parents are deserving of government money to boost their educational opportunities, and those who are disadvantaged either by economics or special educational needs are no longer deserving of the investment of public money. I predicted that children with SEN and disabilities would soon become the ‘benefit cheats’ of education, and here they are, apparently ensconced in schools that are ‘playing the system’ so they can gain extra funds for their schools.

In today’s Education Guardian Fran Abrams writes: ‘A green paper is expected to set out the future of special needs education this month – and there have been suggestions that ministers could use Ofsted’s findings to justify cutting the numbers classified as needing extra help.’ See the article here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/feb/08/special-needs-spending-cuts?commentpage=last#end-of-comments

If this were to happen, as I worry it will, simply brushing students with special needs under the carpet is a very poor strategy indeed. They will still be there, and they will go through the education system unrecognised and un-helped, and a whole cohort of our youth will under achieve in their education. As if that wasn’t bad enough, vocational courses and newly ‘non-humanities’ subjects such as Music that suit some children are being simply rubbed out of existence due to the requirements of the English Baccalaureate. In Academyworld, all routes of redress that parents could previously take when they felt their children’s needs were not being met have been eliminated: the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal can no longer deal with appeals from parents of children who go to academies and parents can no longer complain to the council about admissions. All routes of redress for children attending academies lead to Gove. There is something very wrong about placing so much power with one person.

When I look at the narrowed curriculum so suddenly in vogue at the Dept for Education, I worry about our most vulnerable children and I wonder what the future holds for them. I hope that one day this government will be consigned to history as an administration which shaped and paid for education for a narrow elite and consigned the rest to second best. The nature of this is very short term, as children with special needs will not take their place as wage earners but will become dependent on health, social services and benefits, their potential and prospects for fulfilment untapped. It doesn’t have to be this way.



Guerrillamum’s wish list for the Teather Green Paper on SEN and disability

Over the last two or three weeks you could not miss the dispute over student fees. It has been on our streets, on the radio and on the television. I don’t want to comment on the rights and wrongs of this, but another vital issue in Education is being missed. Nobody has yet marched through Whitehall, occupied buildings or caused a split in the coalition over the issue of Idayah Miller and her disgraceful treatment by the Harris Federation.

Idayah is a symptom of wider principles which are endangered at present. I’ve written before about the lack of safeguards and checks and balances for academies, particularly where it affects SEN. Idayah has been denied a place at the Crystal Palace Harris academy and was told (amongst other things) that in her wheelchair she would take up too much space in the corridor in the event of a fire. The Harris Federation have apologised for the ill judged words of the Head (though I note he hasn’t been disciplined) but crucially Idayah still does not have a place. The only options available to her Idayah are to appeal to the academy itself or to the Minister of State for Education. A recent article from the London Evening Standard can be seen here: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23903236-idayah-is-a-bright-child-one-of-a-spurned-minority.do

The academy cancelled the appeal and referred the family to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDT). Regular readers will know that I warned some time ago that academies do not have the same legal status in SEN Law as Local Authority controlled schools and that SENDT does not have any jurisdiction over them and they could not help Idayah. This leaves Idayah with a right of appeal either to the school, which has already made its views clear, or to the Minister of State for Education. If I were in her shoes I think I would far rather go to a SENDT tribunal (regular readers will know how harrowing I found SENDT!) than go to an appeal with a man who makes dodgy ideological decisions and changes laws he doesn’t agree with using terrorism legislation.

I don’t have first hand knowledge of Idayah Miller or her family and I don’t know about her particular circumstances. All my sources have come from the Press. However, I do have first hand knowledge of what it feels like to be a family with a disabled child or children. You can quite often feel that you are not a part of society and that some of the agencies that are there to help you are actually obstacles to getting the provision you need for your child. I did, however, see some real improvements under the last Labour administration and greater protection for the rights of disabled people i.e the Autism Act, the Equality Act and excellent initiatives such as Aiming High. It’s really worrying to hear the Prime Minister say he wants to get rid of the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Act reflecting our values. The evidence since his government came to power is that their values include ignoring, marginalising, and removing benefits from those who have disabilities. Social mobility? Not if you are disabled, it seems.

I wish that Idayah had had one percent of the coverage given to the university fees debate. I wish that we could also see the same degree of pressure put on the government as has been used to argue against the schools sports partnership cuts or child benefit. Is it that people don’t care? Or that in financially straitened times people look only to their own needs? What about the Big Society? Or does it not apply to people with disabilities?

The government have a chance to prove me wrong. The Green Paper on SEN is due soon. (Transparency website!!!!!). Sarah Teather has a chance to put some of these wrongs right and lets hope she does.

In the meantime, please re-tweet. Please try to raise the profile for the issues I have raised. If you know somebody famous, or anyone with influence, or who has a big Twitter following (even better!!!) then send this post on to them. Next time this could happen to somebody you love. This is the thin end of the wedge.

At the moment the government is not doing anything about this case (or others like it) because they think nobody cares and they can get away with allowing these organisations to fail disabled children. It’s cheaper.

The Green Paper for SEN and disability is due to be published soon and my wish list would be:

• Inclusive schools admissions policies – schools should not be able to socially engineer their intake, and children with SEN and disabilities should be able to attend mainstream schools or special schools according to their needs
• An independent appeals procedure – independent of the school heads, governors, and of the Minister of State for Education.
• Retain SENDT and widen its scope to deal with appeals from Local Authority controlled schools, academies and free schools (when they come in).
• Retain the statement of SEN and the rights it confers on children. Widen availability of process to identify and make provision for children with SEN because appropriate assessment is currently far too difficult to obtain.
• No selection in state funded schools – (do realise this is a more general wish, probably beyond remit of Sarah T…)
• No devolved funding for statemented children – all statements should be funded properly by the State.

The lack of comment from the Opposition is also a worry and I would like to see some of our Shadow Cabinet getting involved in this very important debate.



J’accuse…..

There has been a lot of talk about how election pledges have been broken on tuition fees and on child benefit. Lots of column inches, hours of radio and television and bucket loads of spin. It was hard to watch TV, listen to the radio or read a paper without seeing the DPM telling of his angst and regret.

Almost unnoticed except for a small article in The Guardian, see it here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/oct/24/michael-gove-pupil-premium – was the news that the Minister of Education had revealed that the funding for the ‘Pupil Premium’ was not in fact ‘new money’ but would largely come out of other schools funding . Why is this important? It’s important because the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Education Minister have all previously said that it would come from outside the Education budget. Was it a mistake, sophistry or downright deception? I suppose we will never know.

What I do know is that through skilful spin it has not emerged as a big issue and was not widely reported. Because of this the government’s media monitors/advisers will clap themselves on the back and say that nobody is making a fuss about this so you can go ahead and push on and cut more money from budgets for poor or disadvantaged pupils . It’s cynical, nasty and demonstrates their true colours.

You can’t do anything about the parliament at the moment because the first thing the government did was to fix the election term and make 51% the margin for a vote of no confidence. You can however influence them by campaigning in the media. I admire the skill of the Conservative spin doctors because they have made the Liberal members of the cabinet take most of the heat. They do have a weakness though in that we have seen the Prime Minister have some spectacular wobbles when public opinion goes very much against them eg. Child Benefit.

If we want a society in which we look after the vulnerable and believe in an equitable (not ‘FAIR’ ) education system we need to say so now. We need coverage in the papers, radio and on TV and then we can make this happen. I haven’t seen any money being taken from Free Schools and Academies for the few, when there are so many schools which need appropriate funding. Free Schools are not about education they are about social selection and elitism. Don’t believe me, take a trip to the Conservative Home website article on admissions policy and see what will come if we don’t object now.

I don’t believe that the case for these cuts in education has been proved. The Conservative spin campaign is masking the nasty ideology behind the re-engineering of our education system into a social and educational elitist organisation paid for by our money. The next thing to ‘go’ (ie change irrevocably) will be the admissions code. Remember you saw it here first.



Urgent – The special educational needs and disability review – a statement is not enough

I urge you all to read this report for yourselves.  I have not finished reading it myself but have in the first two pages encountered some seriously sweeping statements not properly backed up by research which aim to cut costs and enable publicly funded money to go to independent schools and private schools, academies and free schools. 

I am going to take a little time to read and digest the report before I publish any analysis.  However, the way this has been reported leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  The report only became available on the OFSTED website after 9.30am today, after all of the bad headlines and scaremongering media coverage had been presented largely unchallenged. 

The bit I have read so far is not based on evidence which stands any reasonable test and the conclusions are ideologically motivated rather than evidence based.  Yesterday I commented on the Toby Young article which was scaremongering about Health and Safety and children with disabilities in schools.  I said at that time that Toby would be declaring that disability is a ‘lifestyle choice’.  It’s happened, although it is referred to as ‘special educational needs’.  Watch the media as special educational needs becomes the new benefit cheat. 

You don’t have to take this.  WE don’t have have to take this!  What has motivated OFSTED to do this?  Follow the money…  OFSTED obviously don’t want to go the way of the Audit Commission.  Do we detect the hand of GOVE?



Does the free schools and academies rhetoric make life easier for special needs and deprived children?

I agree totally with this article, and for me, Cameron’s response to the idea of sending his children to a local comprehensive school said it all. Not only that, there was recently a move by the Telegraph in it’s article by Rosa Prince ‘Sharp rise in number of special needs pupils’ to link low achievement in children with bad behaviour rather than any special educational need they might have. She speculates that these badly behaved children are being over labelled with an SEN in order to enable their schools to improve their standing in the league tables, and parents to cherry pick the best schools! See Rosa Prince’s article.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7904999/Sharp-rise-in-number-of-special-needs-pupils.html

Children from poorer families are umuch less likely to have parents with the time and energy and confidence to get involved with a Free School, and will be left on the sidelines with the ‘undesirable schools’. Not only that, there is no ring fencing of the pupil premium and it looks increasingly likely that this money might not actually reach the children for whom it is intended. Unfortunately, if state schools under local authority control have to compete with free schools and academies for funding these schools will be much less able to improve. Their funding will be reduced because they will have to share it with any new academies or free schools that might have been set up in their area.

I still haven’t figured out why the government can’t simply put this vast amount of money into improving the schools we already have, for the benefit of all children.

I always try not to be too political.  So here’s a comment to try to balance things up.  With the honourable exception of Ed Balls we haven’t heard much about Education from the other four Labour leadership contenders.  Of course, the economy dominates the headlines but here’s a challenge:  rather than concentrate on what mistakes have or have not been made in running the economy, lets deal with the future of our country.  Education is fundamental to all of our futures and I believe that equipping ALL of OUR children with the skills and abilities to be successful and  economically/financially independent to their full potential is vital.  Schools are also the nursery for successful social cohesion and any educational system which is not based on equality of opportunity is simply storing up social problems for the future.



Is this the future we want? Private schools in 4 star hotels becoming Free Schools?

It’s hard to post about Free Schools without being mean and nasty and hurting people. I don’t mind being mean and nasty about politicians when I have to because they have put themselves in the firing line but I don’t want to upset other parents simply trying to do the best for their children. So, I am not naming the institution I am writing about, I will just use some of their press. 

This private school formed by a band of parents following the closure of its predecessor, has been set up with an initial cohort of fifteen pupils in a wing of a 4 star hotel.  The staff and Head teacher have almost wholly been transplanted from the old school, and the website looks very like the old one. 

I have no problem with parents who choose to opt out of the state education system.  However, this is an option they should expect to pay for.  Nor do I have a problem with this school setting itself up in a 4 star hotel, and providing the sort of education for these children that the parents have agreed to pay for.  I understand that the group undertook considerable fund raising activities to make their dream possible.  I am sure it will be a very good school and will provide a good all round education for the children who go there. 

The School’s governors have said that the school has applied to become one of the first free schools – a publicly funded, mixed-ability independent school set up to meet parents’ demand, and it will be free from local authority control. These schools will be able to set up their own curriculum, as they don’t have to follow the national curriculum and they will also be responsible for buying in services to meet special educational needs. 

This is where I begin to have a problem with this.  Michael Gove has funded his Academies and Free Schools projects by taking away money from the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) in order to give it to the Academies and Free Schools.  In fact, our mainstream state schools that are neither academies nor free schools are set to lose out twice: not only have they lost out after the cancellation of the BSF programme, but also the yearly funding costs of academies and free schools will be met by taking money from existing schools in any area where these schools are set up.

Pause for a moment to think of a select few children enjoying a publicly funded private school style education in a luxury hotel, and compare this to:

  •  images of children being educated in decrepit school buildings
  • school corridors with buckets lined up to catch the drips from leaky roofs
  • children in overcrowded portacabins
  • children wearing coats in cold classrooms due to broken and ill-fitting windows

Is this not indicative of a two tier education system with a vastly widening gap between the haves and have nots of society?

This new private school say that they have been praised by Ofsted for their policies, but these can not be seen on the website.  There is scant mention of managing the needs of children with special educational needs, and nothing about equality of opportunity or an admissions policy.  Not wishing to get too political, I happen to like the work done by the previous government in the areas of equality, disability discrimination and special educational needs, and my children have enjoyed these protections in their education.  Indeed, these policies are very evidently displayed on their school website and awareness of these issues in their school is generally very good. 

The new private school I am writing about here is still a fee paying school, but if it ever becomes a free school, it will end up being funded by public money, and the school, the governing body and no doubt many of the parents will be able to decide how this money is spent.  Not the government, not the Local Authority.  Now despite huge claims by Michael Gove that hundreds of groups had expressed interest in becoming Free Schools, there were at the last count only 16 set to open in September 2011, about which Mr Gove was reputed to be not very happy.  Perhaps, like me,  most state schools appreciate the protections offered to the vulnerable by continuing to keep their schools under local authority control?  This general lack of uptake does not bode well for the likelihood of free schools becoming a widespread and inclusive model for education. 

How can we sit by and let this happen without so much as a whimper?  This model is not an acceptable vision of the future of education for me.  Whether this model is an acceptable vision of the future of education for Mr Gove remains to be seen.  But why provide a luxury education for the few at public expense, if we can’t do it for the many?



153 schools apply for academy status

Despite Government claims that thousands of schools wanted to become academies it appears that rushing through emergency legislation has only persuaded 153 schools to become academies. 

I find this really heartening.  It demonstrates that even if the Minister of Education wants to bring in an ideologically based policy our schools and colleges are still sticking with a system that they know can work, because they are acting in the best interests of their students.

Over to you, Michael.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/jul/29/michael-gove-academies-schools-claims



I’M WORRIED!

I am really worried about what is happening to Education in this country.  The new coalition government has forced the Academies Bill through Parliament using procedures brought in to expedite anti-terror legislation.  Apart from the gung-ho attitude displayed by everyone from the Prime Minister down to the civil servants answering questions on the subject (I know, I’ve got the emails), there is a worrying lack of certainty about what happens to special educational needs provision in Academies.

Also in the Press, Rosa Prince, Political Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph writes ‘The Green Paper ordered by Miss Teather into special educational needs and the lives of disabled children will be published in the autumn’.  Sarah Teather is the Children’s Minister.  Follow this link to see the article: 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7904999/Sharp-rise-in-number-of-special-needs-pupils.html

Few people would dispute that the system around the identification and meeting of special educational needs is in need of radical overhaul.  This is one reason for having a Green Paper on the subject.  However, I can see a lot of  macho posturing in the Press from those in authority who wish to change our Education legislation, but these government officials have offered little public consultation on the matter. 

There seems to be a worrying move by the Daily Telegraph to portray special educational needs as ‘bad behaviour’, or simply low attainment, with parents apparently seeking to have their children labelled with a special educational need just so they can cherry pick the best schools.   Prince’s article appears to imply that SEN is a myth, simply because increasing numbers of children are now being identified with SEN.  Increased diagnosis of SEN is a good thing, and we can’t ignore this.  Nor should we begrudge the money it costs us as a society to meet these needs – although the Daily Telegraph seems to want us to do just that.  I have never known a special educational need to go away if ignored, and find it difficult to believe that things have ever improved for a special needs child whose low attainment is deemed to be the result of bad behaviour! 

I never thought that I would miss the last Government so much, as there was never enough funding to be had and the LEA was always looking to cut provision to save money.  However, I am eternally grateful to them for bringing in the Disability Discrimination Act, the Disability Equality Duty The Equality Act and Human Rights legislation which will protect our children’s rights.  I think we are going to need them.

Are you worried now?




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