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Last Updated: Monday, 8 January 2007, 15:52 GMT
Q&A: Special Educational Needs
As it is revealed Ruth Kelly has sent her son to a private school, we look at the system of special educational needs in England.

Q: What are special educational needs?

A: Almost a fifth of children are said to have special educational needs (SEN).

Their difficulties range from problems in thinking and understanding, to physical or sensory difficulties and/or difficulties with speech and language.

But they can also be social - problems with how they relate to and behave with other people, or emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Q: How are special educational needs met?

A: That depends on the severity of the need.

SEN is usually picked up when the school or the child's parents notice that a pupil is falling behind their classmates.

All state schools are required by law to ensure that special help is provided for children with SEN.

In most cases an assessment of the need and action plan will be drawn up by the individual school alone.

But occasionally, in more severe cases, local authorities (LAs) will have to make a formal assessment of a pupil's needs based on specialist advice.

This is a statutory assessment, resulting in what is known as a statement of special educational needs.

It describes the child's need and defines the specialist help that they need.

However, the number of formal statements written by LAs is falling, despite an increase in the proportion of children known to have learning difficulties.

Q: Where do children get this extra help?

A: Under the policy of inclusion, any child with mild to moderate learning difficulties is supposed to be given a place in a mainstream school.

As a result about 60% of children with SEN are educated within a regular, mainstream school - albeit with the help of outside specialists in some cases.

The policy aimed to end the situation where children were effectively kept separate from their more able peers.

However, some children will have learning difficulties or disabilities severe enough for them to be educated separately in special schools.

Some of these will be private schools specialising in certain kinds of special needs provision.

And the LA will be obliged to fund places for children who they have assessed as needing them.

Alternatively, parents unhappy with the school and the LA's response to their child's case may take the step of funding the place themselves - if they can afford it.

Q: Does the system work well?

A: That depends who you talk to. The government will insist it works well in most cases.

But special needs campaigners say many local councils are unwilling to "statement" pupils because of the legal entitlement and possible extra costs that brings.

This could mean that many pupils are not having their educational needs met properly.

They also point to the fact that a higher proportion of learning disabled children are excluded from school than those without SEN.

Parents are often forced to go to huge lengths to get their children the educational support that they believe they need.

Their claims are backed up by a recent Commons education committee report which found the SEN system in England "not fit for purpose".

Q: What did the committee conclude?

A: It said the government had made efforts to improve the situation, with 90% of parents saying they were satisfied with what their children were offered.

But it also said SEN provision was something of a "postcode lottery".

Pupils with SEN were being sidelined and the number of special schools, both state and private, had fallen by 7% to 1,148 over the previous nine years.

The committee also said it was a "tough, tough world" for the minority of families fighting to get a formal statement of SEN.

The fact that mainstream schools needed to do well in league tables meant many were in reality unwilling to take pupils with special educational needs, it added.

Kelly 'doing right thing' for son
08 Jan 07 |  Politics
School inclusion 'can be abuse'
16 May 06 |  Education
Special needs education 'not fit'
06 Jul 06 |  Education

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