Not even half a minute for those who need it most

OPINION: The latest survey shows that primary schools are under strain when it comes to the vital assessment of pupils with difficulties
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The Independent Online
On average, primary school teachers responsible for assessing whether children have special educational needs have less than half a minute per pupil a week to do the job, according to research published this week by Warwick University.

Even when a child is identified as having problems, the teacher doing the job of special needs co-ordinator has, on average, only two minutes a week to spend on administering the support the child should get in school.

While much has been written and said on curriculum overload, little attention has been paid to the effects of the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice. Introduced by the 1993 Education Act and requiring schools to "have regard" for assessing pupils' special educational needs, it involves complex methods of recording pupil progress and, apart from providing resources for training, its staffing cost implications were not recognised by government.

Although there are high levels of support among teachers for the code, many schools have found its implementation very difficult. While there are management and workload problems in secondary schools, it is in primary schools that the strains appear. Unlike their colleagues in secondary schools, primary special educational needs co-ordinators are usually expected to carry out their duties on their own.

This week, the National Union of Teachers has published the results of the biggest survey yet conducted of the effects of the code on co-ordinators .

The research, conducted by Professor Ann Lewis, of Warwick University, involved a detailed questionnaire being sent to all special needs co-ordinators. Around 2,200 schools replied.

Assessing all pupils for special educational needs is vital if early detection of need can take place. Yet the research shows that some primary co-ordinators have only tiny amounts of time available for this crucial job.

Even where co-ordinators have preparation or "non-contact" time during the school day, the amount of time available on average per pupil with special needs only reaches four minutes a week.

Non-contact time is inadequate. Such time should at least be doubled. Lack of finance is the overwhelming factor interfering with the implementation of the code. This funding shortage hits primary schools hardest. For many primary co-ordinators, additional responsibilities arising from the code are not rewarded financially.

The report contains many other fascinating findings. For example, nearly half the co-ordinators who replied were dissatisfied with the quantity of local education authority psychological service advice available to schools. This advice is critical for the identification of significant special educational need.

Primary teachers, yet again, have had to shoulder additional responsibilities with little recognition from the Government. While the teachers have carried out these extra duties with professionalism, the strains show through .

The Warwick University research comes to a depressingly familiar conclusion. Teachers' professionalism is again being taken for granted and their commitment exploited. I want the Secretary of State and the Chief Inspector to take note.

The writer is General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers.