Pupils with special needs face `lottery'

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The Independent Online
THE FATE of children with learning difficulties remains a lottery and the growth in the number with "statements" of special needs should be investigated, the Audit Commission said yesterday.

Parents battling for a place for their child in an ordinary school are three times more likely to succeed in some education authorities' areas than in others. And in some areas, only a few are assessed within the recommended time for a statement, which gives a right to extra help. In others, the process is completed for all within the 18-week deadline. However, a report from the commission says delays have decreased: last year nearly half councils produced a draft statement within the target time compared with 40 per cent a year earlier.

But in the past five years the number of children with statements has risen by 35 per cent as parents have become more aware of their rights and schools have pressed for statements because of financial pressures.

A statement details the help needed by a child with learning difficulties. There are 1.3 million people under 20 with special educational needs, one in eight of the age group. About 260,000 of them have statements.

Around pounds 2.5bn out of the total schools budget of pounds 18bn is now spent on special-needs services, an increase of 25 per cent in six years.

Most parents of such children believe they will benefit from being educated in mainstream schools and, since 1992, the proportion in ordinary schools has risen from 40 to 55 per cent.

Big variations between authorities remain, however. In Barnsley in South Yorkshire, for instance, the proportion of the school population in special schools is 0.6 per cent compared with 2 per cent in nearby Rotherham. In Greenwich in London, 2.6 per cent are in special schools.

Paul Vevers, the commission's director of audit support, said increasing expect- ations of parents and the growth in the activities of voluntary bodies offered one explanation for the increase in the number of statemented children. "In addition, there is still in many authorities a significant financial incentive for schools to get a child statemented because they then receive extra money," Mr Vevers said. "We want to persuade local authorities to switch resources to help schools without tying the money to statements."

He added: "If this sort of growth in the number of statemented children continues, we are going to have a finite amount of money spread very thinly across more and more children."

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