The future of special educational needs in the county has been thrust firmly into the spotlight by the critical Ofsted Report into the local education authority.
The report offers something for both supporters and opponents of the authorityís policy of integrating more children with moderate learning difficulties into the countyís mainstream schools.
Supporters will claim that the main criticism is levelled not at the policy, but at the drawn out way in which it is being implemented. We are not convinced that this interpretation is borne out by examination of what the report actually says.
The historic situation of the county council with no single political party holding overall contro and, until recently, no effective pact between parties, has held back the development of strategy for special educational needs, in Ofstedís view.
The result it says, ďis that the strategy, such as it is, has taken a long time to emerge, is fragmented and is not being implemented effectively.
Ofsted is not simply calling for the education authority to implement its existing strategy more quickly. It is demanding that the strategy be clearer and more cohesive. And there is one crucial passage in the report that will strengthen the resolve of those opposed to the policy.
Most serious of all, says the report, although the documentation makes constant references to inclusion and facilitating access, it fails to show how the proposed changes will raise the standards of achievement of pupils with special educational needs.
This is the crux of the debate about the inclusion policy.
Despite its consultation process, the education authority has failed to convince many parents of special needs children that moving them into mainstream schools will not damage their education, let alone raise their standards of achievement. And there are head teachers of mainstream schools who have reservations about whether there will be enough additional resource to enable them to absorb special needs children successfully.
The Ofsted report makes it clear that there are legitimate reasons for these concerns. The education authority must address them.
Spencer Feeney, Editor The Citizen, Editorial, 9/1/02