Special needs shake-up gets mixed reaction in Sunderland

Councillor, Robert Oliver launching the Tory's Manifesto with fellow councillors and candidates at Doxford Park.
Councillor, Robert Oliver launching the Tory's Manifesto with fellow councillors and candidates at Doxford Park.
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PARENTS across Wearside could be given rights to buy help for children with special needs.

Under plans for the biggest shake-up of the system for 30 years, families would be given legal powers to control budgets for youngsters who need support.

Education, health and social services will be forced to work together to provide support for a child with special educational needs (SEN), as the current system is thought to be too complex and leaves parents fighting for help.

However, the Green Paper shake-up is also likely to see the number of children considered to have SEN cut amid tighter rules on which youngsters can be diagnosed.

This move comes after Ofsted warned many children are being wrongly identified as having SEN because of poor teaching.

Coun Robert Oliver, Sunderland’s Tory spokesman for education, said: “The current categories used to diagnose some special needs problems are too broad, with children classed as requiring extra help when their needs could be met with strong teaching and pastoral care.

“These reforms will put parents in charge of personal budgets for their children with severe, profound or multiple needs so they can choose the expert support that is right for their child.”

However, the plans have been criticised by teaching unions.

Mike Johnson, of the Sunderland National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, said: “Personal budgets may sound superficially attractive, but are simply vouchers by any other name.

“Vouchers are about opening up a market in the provision of special needs rather than ensuring that parents, teachers and other professionals can work together to support pupils with the most complex and challenging SEN.”

He said the results of the proposals will be fewer children qualifying for additional support and teachers and parents left to pick up the pieces.

Howard Brown, Wearside divisional officer for the National Union of Teachers, said: “In going ahead with these proposals the Government are stating that they no longer ‘trust’ the medical determinations for these pupils, the educational psychologists’ professional opinions or even that of the teaching staff who initially seek support.

“The whole reform is about saving money – taking decisions away from the professionals, identifying less children with additional needs, thus employing less staff and giving inadequate support to these vulnerable children.”

Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West, and Shadow Education Minister, said: “For the Government to focus on taking arbitrary numbers of pupils off the SEN register is entirely the wrong starting point from which to reform the system.”

She said while parents would welcome moves to streamline the assessment process and remove barriers, the Government must set out clearly how they expect to deliver on these ambitions at a time when specialists are being lost due to deep cuts to council budgets.