Ed Balls: Helping children with special needs is a moral imperative

We can remove the barriers that hold some pupils back
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Being a parent of a child with special education needs or a disability can be hugely frustrating. Over the past two years I've met many headteachers and teachers who are passionate about making sure these children progress. But too often parents tell me they still have to fight the "system" to get the high-quality provision their kids need and deserve.

That's why, last year, I asked Brian Lamb to lead an independent inquiry into how we improve parental confidence in the assessment system for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). His interim report today sets out two key recommendations which we will implement.

First, in response to concerns raised by all too many frustrated parents, we will strengthen their appeal rights if they are unhappy with their child's statement of SEN. Parents will now have a new right of appeal if their child's statement has been reviewed but not amended by the local authority. So if parents feel their children's needs have changed but have not been picked up, they will be able to demand that it is looked at again.

And second, following campaigning by John Bercow in his last months as a Conservative backbencher, we will now change the law so that all schools are inspected on how they support children with SEN and disabilities. Making the achievements of these children a top priority for Ofsted inspectors, alongside the extra funding and guidance we are giving to schools, will help to ensure that children with SEN and disabilities realise their full potential.

I am determined to move support for children with SEN to the centre of education policy. Getting pupils with SEN the help they need is a moral imperative: by working together we can remove the barriers which hold some children back and stop them succeeding. And when you consider that 70 per cent of young offenders and two-thirds of excluded children have a special educational need, this is vital to any vision of a fair and cohesive society. But as we will see when the primary school results are published tomorrow, making sure children with SEN get a better deal is not just an add-on: it's also core to the school standards agenda.

We should celebrate the fact that extra investment in schools, more teachers and teaching assistants has delivered real progress over the last 12 years. Over 100,000 more 11 year olds are reaching the expected level in English and in maths than in 1997, with standards now rigorously monitored by the new independent watchdog Ofqual. Children with SEN have made faster progress in recent years: from just one in three getting to the expected level in English six years ago to around 45 per cent today.

But while we are all impatient to go further and faster, as the number of children not getting to the expected level becomes smaller it becomes harder to make progress. Despite the big improvements in outcomes for children with SEN, it's a stark fact that of those 20 per cent of children not getting to the expected standard – level 4 – in English over two-thirds have a special educational need.

Of course, for some children with very severe learning disabilities, getting to level 4 by the age of 11 is too high a threshold for success. And not getting to this level does not mean, as some commentators will claim, that these children "cannot read or write". Most of them absolutely can – but not at the level we'd like them to reach by the end of primary school.

Raising standards and ensuring all children succeed means we must intervene early, not wait until it's too late. We need to identify children's additional needs early on and act quickly to give them extra support. That's why we are training 4,000 new specialist dyslexia teachers. And all children falling behind at primary school in any of the 3Rs will be able to get one-to-one and small group tuition.

We also need to ensure that how a school delivers for its most disadvantaged children is a crucial part of how a school's performance is judged. It's no good having great average results when some children are left behind and not given the support they need to fulfil their potential. So our new School Report Card will give parents a fuller picture than the traditional and rather narrow league tables printed in the newspapers.

National curriculum tests at 11 – whether in their current form or the new "stage not age" tests currently being piloted – are the only reliable and objective measure of how individual primary schools are performing and provide vital information to parents. But the Report Card is being introduced because we want schools to be recognised for more than just the overall test and exam results, the average result of the average child.

I know these tests are controversial with some headteachers. But I do hope this week that the debate will not simply be about the testing system itself. What really counts is that we act to make sure every child can succeed and ensure schools are accountable for the progress of every child.

Today's Lamb Inquiry report is an important step forward for thousands of parents and children. But we will need to go even further in the coming months if we are to really give every child with a special educational need or a disability the best start in life.

Ed Balls is the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families