Leading Article: Special need for national standards

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THE GOVERNMENT would like to reduce the number of children issued with a statement of special educational needs on account of their mental or physical disabilities, because it has gone up sharply in recent years and is costing the taxpayer a lot of money. Of course, that is not what ministers say in public. Estelle Morris, the education minister, said yesterday that she recognised that for too many parents the process of obtaining a statement was "18 months of bureaucracy and hassle", and that she wanted to make support for the disabled so good that parents would not need to go through it. But the package she unveiled is a curious mixture of good intentions, moderate reform and unrealistic hopes.

There is a parallel here with the rising costs of disability benefits. While part of the rise represents trivial or even bogus cases, most of it represents delayed justice for our fellow-citizens or, in the case of education, future citizens. These are people who either would not have been entitled to help in the past (but should have been), or who have become more assertive in claiming the help to which they were always entitled.

The announcement that the Government will spend an extra pounds 37m a year on the special needs of disabled children is to be welcomed. But Ms Morris's belief that this will somehow persuade parents that they do not need to get a statement for their child is naive. The extra money will not change the fact that a statement offers the only legal lever which their parents can use to require education authorities to provide for them. If, as Ms Morris promised, the "statementing" system becomes fairer and more streamlined, the number of statements is bound to rise.

One of the problems with the system at present is that many local councils drag their heels over the issuing of statements, often taking months rather than weeks, because they know that they will then become legally obliged to meet the needs specified.

It is disappointing, therefore, that the Government is only prepared to publish non-statutory guidance to local councils on the criteria for issuing statements. This is surely an issue on which we have to take another reluctant step towards national minimum standards in education: local autonomy is all very well, except when it means local discretion to treat the disabled worse in one place than another. At least the Government has dropped its idea of setting an arbitrary target for reducing the proportion of children with statements from 3 per cent to 2 per cent.

The system will be neither fair nor efficient until we have clear criteria for statements and a guarantee that they will be issued and appeals heard within a tight timetable.