“We are committed to developing an education service that provides equality of opportunity and high achievement for all children.” This bold statement comes from the Code of Practice for Special Educational Needs. It goes on to state: “The focus is on preventative work to ensure that children’s special educational needs are identified as quickly as possible and that early action is taken to meet those needs.”
The Code of Practice is now eight years old, and when considering the needs of those children with dyslexia and specific learning difficulties, it is interesting to look at the guidance for parents and to see whether these goals have been achieved.
As has been previously documented, there has been a significant increase in the number of children presenting with complex learning profiles rather than “straightforward” dyslexia. Select any combination from dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), pragmatic and semantic language difficulties, information and sensory processing difficulties, social communication problems, obsessive compulsive disorder, high levels of anxiety and poor self esteem, and you have the profile of a typical pupil who attends one of the specialist schools for specific learning difficulties (SpLD). On-site speech and language therapists and occupational therapists have become the norm in order for these establishments to provide for the comorbid difficulties that are becoming ever more prevalent.
To reflect this, and to make it easier for parents to identify the appropriate school for their child, the Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils (CReSTeD) has reorganised and updated its register of schools so that it not only includes specialist establishments, schools with a dyslexia unit, with specialist classes, and with a withdrawal system, but it also differentiates between those specialist schools established primarily to teach pupils with dyslexia and those that are established to teach pupils with SpLD plus high functioning ASD. There is a key that enables parents to identify the particular difficulties catered for by different schools as well as a very detailed set of criteria for each category of school.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the CReSTeD Register is a much valued resource for parents of dyslexic children. However, one can’t help noticing that the majority of schools are from the independent sector. Many of them, particularly in the specialist category, were trailblazers in establishing effective programmes for the dyslexic learner that resulted in impressive accelerated progress. It is noticeable that, as their provision has been developed to encompass the more complex and comorbid learning profile, so Ofsted has continued to describe the accelerated learning and value for money as “outstanding”.
Many of these specialist schools are frequently identified in proposed statements for pupils with severe needs where parents are seeking local authority (LA) funding. Sadly, many of these cases still can not be resolved without resorting to the appeal system, which results in a damaging delay for the child and often crippling expense for the parents. This can also occur when applying for a statutory assessment, as well as when seeking a statement. I experienced one parent having to go to appeal three times before he achieved funding for his son at a specialist school. The amazing thing was that the LA claimed that the child didn’t even need a statutory assessment!
However, it should be recognised that, since the Code of Practice came into being, there has been improvement in the provision for dyslexia and specific learning difficulties in the maintained sector. Better training, increased resources and smaller teaching groups have all contributed to more effective provision for the moderate level of dyslexia and associated difficulties. British Dyslexia Association (BDA) and Dyslexia Action (DA) both have long histories of initiating projects with LAs to improve the lot of the dyslexic learner.
Again, this has been recognised by CReSTeD which, in a determined effort to encourage more maintained schools to subscribe to its Register, has created a new “Maintained Sector” that provides the opportunity for maintained schools to demonstrate how inclusion strategies support dyslexic pupils across the curriculum. It is hoped that more and more maintained schools will register with CReSTeD in order for parents to have a better informed choice of school.
It still remains a fact, though, that many parents find the whole question of provision for dyslexia confusing. They often feel isolated as they don’t have access to other parents of children with similar needs, they are not aware of the range of provision for dyslexia and comorbid difficulties, and they are sometimes given the impression that it is unrealistic to aim for a statement and that they should lower expectations, even when their child has at least average cognitive ability.
There seems to be confusion between the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and LA's policies. Historically, the Government has accepted that a small percentage of children with severe dyslexia and associated difficulties (as listed in the Code of Practice) will need to attend specialist schools, and yet LAs often give the impression that their “reason for being” is to ensure all children are educated at their local mainstream school. Of course, the whole point of the Code of Practice was to give parents a choice between special and mainstream schools. Unfortunately, in abolishing “approved status” (under Section 347 of the Education Act) for those independent special schools that have demonstrated that they can give a high standard of provision for dyslexic pupils, the Government has made it more difficult for parents to identify the appropriate school for their child.
It is my impression, as an educational professional who has worked in special education for over 30 years, sixteen as a Headmaster of two residential special schools, that the goals of “equality of opportunity and high achievement for all children” have not been realised. Similarly, the aims “that children’s special educational needs are identified as quickly as possible and that early action is taken to meet those needs” have not been fulfilled. There is still much work to be done, not only to provide parents with a comprehensive and coherent system that enables them to identify appropriate provision for their dyslexic child, but also to ensure that their SEN are identified early. I have been supporting far too many parents of fifteen year old dyslexic children who have not received appropriate provision to be convinced otherwise. Improvements have been made, but until the Government and LAs work as a coherent whole, and then combine successfully with the independent sectors, such as CReSTeD, BDA and DA, to provide effective and unbiased scaffolding for parents, the Code of Practice will not have achieved its aims.
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 44: January/February 2010.