A change in practice or a change in terminology?

Ruth Northway asks whether proposals to change the terminology around special educational needs will make a difference

My first experience of supporting people we would now consider to have ‘learning disabilities’ was during my final year at school when I undertook work experience one afternoon a week in a school for ‘Educationally Subnormal (Severe)’ children. Whilst this was last century it was not that long ago that such awful language was being used to describe fellow human beings. Thankfully terminology has changed a number of times over the ensuing years often in response to the need to try and reduce the stigmatising effects of language on the people to whom official ‘labels’ are applied. So it is that in this White Paper we again see proposals to change terminology – out with ‘special educational needs’ and in with ‘additional learning needs’ – in an attempt to promote a more inclusive approach. Such changes in language can challenge us all to re-examine our preconceptions and prejudices and do have the potential to lead to improvements in the support offered. However, this is not inevitable and thus it is important to examine some of the detail to see whether a change is terminology is just that or whether it is likely to lead to fundamental changes in the way children and young people are supported to fulfill their educational potential.

This week on Click on Wales

This week on Click on Wales we’ll be examining the upcoming reforms to the provision of additional learning needs in Wales. This year the Welsh Government published a white paper and opened a consultation on Welsh provision, suggesting a rebranding of special educational needs to additional learning needs and other reforms.

On Click on Wales this week, a series of experts, service users and charitable organisations respond.

Monday: Nathan Davies of Sinclairslaw says Wales is getting a raw deal

Tuesday: Denise Inger of SNAP Cymru argues that legislation is just the beginning of reform of additional learning needs provision

Wednesday: Cerys Owen, a campaigner from Powys, explains why additional learning needs units are vital for her family

Thursday: Mike O’Neill, an additional learning needs teacher, shows why reforms will impact positively on his work

Friday: Professor Ruth Northway asks whether these reforms amount to more than a name change.

For me one of the proposals that I welcome is the development of a more integrated approach over the period from birth to the age of 25 years. Whilst (in theory at least) the principle has been for a number of years to view the 14 – 25 period of the young person’s development as a period of transition there have been many reports of families describing their experience of their child leaving school as being like falling off a cliff edge. In some instances planning for the post 19 period have often been started too late or are non-existent leaving families and young people with little or no support at a crucial point in their lives. Providing continuity in terms of educational responsibility during this period provides at least come stability for families even if other services (such as health and social services) do see a transfer of responsibility.

This links to another key element of the proposed reforms namely the need for appropriate information sharing and for effective multi-agency working. I would like to think that these important principles will be translated into practice but I have seen many policy documents include similar statements with little impact on practice. It would perhaps be an interesting exercise to review all policy documents that have been produced over the past decade to identify those that advocate the need for multi-agency and inter-agency working: I suspect there would be many. Nonetheless, when failures in care and support occur one of the most frequently cited problems always seems to be a failure of agencies to work together effectively. Clearly I am not arguing that effective multi-agency working isn’t something that we should be aiming for but policy statements are not always enough. In the current context of service provision, where budgets are evermore squeezed, agencies need to protect their own budgets and this does not always lead to effective joint working.

Perhaps for me the most significant element of the White Paper is the introduction of the Individual Development Plan to replace the old ‘statement’ of special educational needs. The reasoning behind this change is to produce a more flexible response to the needs of children and young people. Put simply their additional learning needs will be identified and a plan put in place to provide additional learning provision. The child and their family are to be involved in this process from the outset and the plan is to be reviewed a minimum of annually. The principle here is a positive one – over my years of working with people with learning disabilities I have been regularly struck by how what is often perceived as a lack of ‘ability’ is instead a lack of opportunity and the availability of support needed to make use of opportunities. If support needs are identified and opportunities to learn are provided then everyone has the potential to grow and develop. Keeping the plan under regular review means that the support provided can be increased or decreased depending upon need. However, the devil is in the detail and I note that local authorities have to demonstrate that they have used their ‘best endeavours’ to secure additional learning provision to meet identified learning needs: this is very different to having a legal requirement to make provision. Also past experience has shown that where resources are tight then there is a danger that ‘need’ will also be defined more tightly meaning that the experienced needs of some children and young people may not be met.

So, is this all going to make any difference or is it just about changing terminology? For me the answer has to be ‘we wait and see’. Certainly there is much in this White Paper that has the potential to make a positive difference. However, this is a White Paper and the detail will be in any resulting code of practice. Also the path to policy implementation is far from smooth and many factors such as economics, political will, and the availability of support for those directly involved in implementing changes are all likely to have an effect. Hopefully there will be positive change not just the illusion of change.

Ruth Northway is Professor of Learning Disability Nursing at the Faculty of Life Sciences and Education, University of South Wales.

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