Education: The crack-up of a vital back-up: The Government's commitment to special needs teaching has an increasingly hollow ring as support services come under pressure from its reforms, says Fran Abrams

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The Independent Online
Last spring Eric Forth, the schools minister, made a strongly worded statement designed to calm fears over the future of learning support services for pupils with special needs. Such services were highly regarded by the Government and were an essential back-up for all schools, he said. Viewed with hindsight, his words have rather a hollow ring to them.

Even as Mr Forth spoke, some of these learning support teams were being dismantled. Since then, pressure on authorities to give schools control of a larger proportion of their budgets under local management of schools (LMS) has led to yet more being broken up or forced to compete in the free market.

Dudley, in the West Midlands, is one of a number of areas where former special needs staff see little cause for celebration about the advent of LMS. In 1991 the borough's learning support service had 26 full-time and 15 part-time staff. Now it has eight full-time workers.

Most of those who used to be on the team are now working as ordinary classroom teachers and their special needs skills are not being used. Government cuts have played their part, but so has LMS.

Many special needs groups fear that such cuts will deal a fatal blow to a new Government code of practice, currently out for consultation, which is designed to ensure that the 20 per cent of pupils who have special needs receive the right help.

The children most at risk, they say, are the 18 per cent whose problems are not severe enough to warrant the drawing up of a formal, legally-binding statement of special needs, but who nevertheless need specialist help. These pupils may suffer from mild learning difficulties, dyslexia or moderate physical handicaps. They may be very young children with problems that could escalate if they are not tackled at an early stage.

Under the code of practice, schools will have to seek outside help for some of these pupils. But they fear that help will no longer be available by the time the code comes into force.

Different authorities have devised different ways of dealing with the problem. Increased integration of special needs pupils into mainstream education has also led to pressure on local authorities to hand over to schools the budgets for their support.

Keith Warburton, research convener for the National Association for Special Educational Needs, is trying to build up a national picture of recent changes. These have been so swift, he says, that simply finding services to send questionnaires to has been a problem, and his preliminary findings have not been encouraging. Although there have been few compulsory redundancies, many staff have been moved into mainstream schools where they are working as ordinary teachers - as in Dudley.

'Much of the preventive work is going by the board. Children who have mild learning difficulties between five and seven are becoming children with moderate learning difficulties later and are being statemented,' he says.

Experts believe that recent increases in the number of pupils with statements of special needs can be attributed partly to the increasing difficulties which non- statemented pupils have in getting help.

In one school known to the British Dyslexia Association, no help is available for pupils unless they have gone through the assessment process which precedes statementing. In another, a school was forced to approach a local voluntary group to find a dyslexia support teacher because none was available through the local authority.

Paul Cann, director of the BDA, said: 'We have a picture of overall inactivity before the statutory stage, and a picture of a code of practice saying lots of splendid things, but we are sceptical that matters will change for the better until resources are targeted properly.'

David Holdsworth, chairman of the Special Educational Needs Support Services Association, is also concerned: 'Learning difficulties support services are mentioned in the 1993 Education Act as part of the service, but many of them have been truncated or possibly even got rid of. Others have been delegated to schools, so that the only way schools can get at them is with their own money.

'My fear is that by the time the new code of practice comes into being, there won't be a central service for children in this category.'

At the other end of the spectrum from Dudley is Humberside, where the learning support service is still part of the local authority, but where schools are given the money to buy in special needs support from wherever they wish.

Tricia Barthorpe, head of the South Bank Support Service, which covers the southern part of the county, has more than 100 staff on her books, and the majority of schools have chosen to buy in the county's service. Many of them have actually found extra money for special needs support - from training budgets for in-service days, for example - and the service is thriving.

Ms Barthorpe is enthusiastic about the new-style service, launched 18 months ago, and happy to offer advice to other local authority learning support teams contemplating their futures.

'We have actually learnt to become the sort of quality service that schools require,' she says. 'If schools know you are good they will find the money and buy you in.'