It is all too easy to get caught up with just one of the possible end results of a statutory assessment (SA), a statement of special educational needs, and ignore the very important process that has to be undertaken to ensure that a school is providing appropriately to meet any child’s specific needs. It is very misleading when entering into SA to be thinking about getting a statement, as this can raise false hopes and expectations. It is more important to look at the process of the assessment and consider what information can be obtained from it, to gain a holistic view of a child’s SEN and then to look at how these needs can best be managed and supported in school.
SA is a complex process and many different people are involved, so it can easily become a time of great stress and anxiety for everyone concerned. The very title of the process means that there are statutory deadlines to be met, with every service having to manage and coordinate their own priorities, thereby creating potential conflict across services. Schools have their own individual structures in place to support individual pupils, informed by the experiences of their pupils, the expertise of staff and the ethos of the school’s approach to SEN. There can therefore be great variance across schools, with children receiving different levels of support depending on which school they attend. This understandable, though not necessarily acceptable, inconsistency plays a huge part in creating expected outcomes for SA.
If at the end of a SA a statement is not issued, parents and schools often feel that the process has been a waste of time. However, whatever the end result, all the information collated throughout the process is used to clearly set out in a document the child’s needs and the provision recommended to meet these needs. This document may be a statement of SEN or a “note in lieu of a statement”, the only differences being that a statement must be regularly reviewed and the provision outlined in it has to be met. With SA, it is the process rather than the end result that is important.
Communication is key to the whole process of supporting a child with SEN, not just during the SA process or between schools and parents, but across all agencies at all times so that schools, parents, local authorities (LAs) and health services are all aware of each other’s priorities and needs. So often, once a situation has been explained to a school or parent, the position can move from being one of grievance to understanding, and even acceptance.
It is often assumed that LAs do not really care about the individual; after all, they are the only service in the SA process that never gets to meet the child concerned in person. However, the people who work within the SEN teams of LAs are as keen to get things right for the child as every other participant in the process. Their slightly detached viewpoint could, some would argue, actually provide them with an excellent perspective from which to view all the material gathered during the process more objectively than others who are more directly involved with the child. They also have the advantage of being able to see the needs of the individual in the context of the different schools in the local area and what each one is able to offer.
Schools will often tell parents that the only way they can ensure that a child’s needs are met is if they have more funding, which can only be achieved through a statement. This is not the case and often, through the process of SA, it becomes clear that while a statement may be required to ensure certain aspects of a child’s needs are met, the money available within the school’s delegated funding is sufficient to meet these needs. Alternatively, the SA process may highlight that a child requires direct speech and language therapy, but due to other priorities and limited resources within the speech and language therapy service, they are unable to provide the high level of support they have recommended.
Where there is an on-going inability on the part of health services to provide the appropriate support for children in mainstream and, sometimes, special schools, this can create a dilemma for parents in deciding which school would be best able to support their child’s needs. At this stage, another chasm can open up between the LA, parents and schools. It is important to remember that the parents’ choice of school is a parental preference, which carries weight when it relates to a maintained school, but is not a right to an independent non-maintained school. The LA has no legal duty to spend public money on a place for a child at an independent non-maintained school. Case Law states that the LA is under a duty to secure provision which meets the child’s SEN but is not under an obligation to provide a child with the best possible education.
This is, inevitably, very hard for parents to accept, for what parent would not want the best for their child? However, it is important to consider this situation from another angle and think about what really constitutes “the best” in this instance. While an independent non-maintained school may well have very small class sizes and on site therapies, there are also many LA schools that are outstanding and placed within a child’s community, thereby offering better opportunities for local friendships, after-school amenities and shorter daily journeys.
Of course, the LA has a duty not just to specific individuals but to all the children in its care. LAs constantly have to perform a balancing act, as so often their own local provision is oversubscribed, creating dilemmas as to which children’s needs should be prioritised. While every parent would argue that their own child is the most in need, the result of such situations is often, unfortunately, a tribunal. It is, however, worth bearing in mind that while as a school or parent you may be disappointed by a LA’s decision, continuing to disagree is not always in the child’s best interest. All parties involved with the SA process want to avoid tribunals, and a way forward at this point may be to consider mediation as a means of gaining greater understanding, having your say and often resolving situations without the need for a tribunal.
Early communication of expectations from the SA process and better understanding of the complexities of working with multi-agencies need to be developed with all participants, and many LAs are creating innovative ways to try to achieve these ends. The Government’s proposed changes to the SA process, involving a single assessment resulting in a combined education, health and care plan, should go a long way towards achieving this. In the meantime, it is important that all parties involved communicate with each other. As a parent or teacher, ask questions, have your say, consider the continually stretched resources available, but most importantly of all, remember the individual child at the centre of the process and take time to step back and decide whether they are getting support appropriate to their needs. Schools, parents and LAs should challenge themselves to provide the best possible support for the individual, and it is important to remember that not everything requires a pot of money. The SA process does not have to be yet another battle for parents; it can and should be one of progress, enlightenment and support for the child’s future.
Stella Turner has worked as a teacher, SENCO and local authority SEN team manager. She also has a 25-year-old son with autism who had a statement of SEN whilst at school.