Most university campuses have largely been built for the young and fit, being large places spread over multiple levels that need a fair amount of time and effort to navigate. Their facilities tend to make certain assumptions: with use of audio and visual aids, signage and learning materials largely designed for those who can see and hear. Course structures, too, can be gruelling, with little ‘slack space’ in the timetable for those who struggle to keep up to speed.
Indeed, higher education as a whole has traditionally been seen as something of a deliberately testing ‘rite of passage’ obstacle course, designed to identify and reward the most able.
Trying to disentangle intellectual prowess from physical abilities is not something to which most university senates devoted much thought before the Warnock Report.
It was Baroness Warnock’s ground-breaking 1974-78 study on special education that first coined the term SEN, with its recommendations for ‘statementing’ for special support for a significant group of children and young people who needed something different from or in addition to the education offered to their peers.
While confined to primary and secondary schooling, the Warnock Report was a wake-up call for education as a whole since, by implication; anything needed in any part of the education structure must be applicable across the whole spectrum.
What is SEN?
SEN students are normally defined as those with physical disabilities (blindness, paralysis, etc.), specific learning difficulties, like dyslexia, or chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or multiple sclerosis (MS).
Most universities have policies that such students should be selected for courses on purely academic criteria, regardless of physical or medical needs.
Once at university, of course, maintaining a level playing field becomes more difficult and the University of Southampton, for example, while welcoming SEN applicants also cautions them:
“If you have a disability, sensory impairment or a chronic medical condition, including a mental health difficulty, you should make sure that the facilities and support offered at Southampton will suit you before making an application.”
Most modern campuses long ago became compliant with universal access requirements for wheelchair users, along with provision of disabled parking, toilets and other facilities.
Even a ‘traditional’ institution, like Keble at Oxford, says most of its college buildings, including the Porters’ Lodge, the library, bar, common rooms and chapel are accessible to wheelchair users, either via flat access or removable ramp, with wheelchair access to the dining hall. Keble reserves a number of ground-floor study-bedrooms plus one study-bedroom with purpose-built, en suite facilities, for physically disabled students, with provision for a carer to be accommodated nearby with direct phone link.
The statement model
Over the years, there has been increasing unease with the ‘Warnock Model’ of statementing for SEN support.
Part of the debate has been about the terminology and whether SEN students need special schools or should be included in mainstream settings.
“What has not altered is that these children and young people are still experiencing difficulties accessing an education system that is appropriate to meet their individual needs,” said Sean Stockdale, organiser of NASEN, one of the main campaigning groups in this field.
“In recent years we have seen a significant increase in the number of children and young people with far more complex needs. Modern medical science is enabling those with life-limiting conditions to live longer and babies born very prematurely are surviving,” says Stockdale, who points out that the SEN system was too cumbersome to deal with multi-faceted conditions and needs.
Indeed, Baroness Warnock herself
has publicly expressed frustration that her report was used to create an ‘appalling’ bureaucratic monster that soaks up resources in its administration and fails to acknowledge different levels of disadvantage.
Over the past two years, significant reform has been set in train.
In March 2011, a Government Green Paper laid out a vision for the more than 20% of the educational population, some 1.7 million children and young people, currently identified as SEN.
A consultation document published in May 2012 paved the way for new legislation, the Children and Families Bill, expected this year. The Bill offers a fundamental reform of the existing law, aimed to provide better support for families, legislating to break down barriers, bureaucracy and delays that stop vulnerable students receiving the support they need. The main elements of the Bill include special educational needs determined by a single assessment process supposed to cover the whole learning journey from birth to 25 years of age, which is more streamlined, better involves children, young people and families and can be completed quickly.
The traditional ‘statement’ is replaced by an Education Health and Care Plan that is supposed to be owned by all the relevant service providers, focused on improving outcomes. The EHC plan comes with a personal budget attached, along with requirement for local authorities and health services to jointly plan and commission the services that the young person and his or her family needs.
The legislation also encompasses requirements on local authorities to publish ‘local offers’ indicating the support available to those with SEN’s and disabilities, along with introduction of mediation opportunities for disputes and trial, giving children the right to appeal if they are unhappy with their support.
NASEN gave its cautious support to early drafts of the legislation.
“Although we have some of the best educational provision in the world which supports our most vulnerable young people there is always room for improvement and it is hoped that the proposals in the Green Paper, and the legislation that follows will support schools and colleges in improving their provision for children, young people and their families,” said Sean Stockdale.
“There has been much discussion and media coverage about the over-identification of SEN children and young people. Yes, there may well be pupils who are low achievers who have been listed as SEN but it is also highly likely that there are probably equally as many who have not been identified at all,” Stockdale pointed out.
“The system we currently have relies heavily on families and schools fighting to get a statement. In the past, statements came with allocated ‘hours’ of additional support. Boxes are ticked in terms of support provided, not outcomes achieved.”
The introduction of EHC Plans will hopefully eradicate this notion of ‘hours’ and be far more outcomes focused.”
“The really positive outcome in these proposals is the introduction of a plan from ages 0–25 as there are many young people who fall through a gap in the current system once they reach the age of 16. The introduction of the plan will ensure that this does not happen but schools and colleges will have to ensure that they are able to offer appropriate provision for all those at 16+ that enables our most vulnerable young people to access employment, education or training opportunities alongside their peers,” Stockdale said.
However, Melinda Nettleton, of specialist education solicitors SEN Legal, identified a huge gap in the forthcoming legislation.
“Quite simply, EHC Plans do not cover Higher Education,” she says.
“The needs of young people with EHC Plans needs will not cease if they go to University. But Universities are not geared up to SEN,” she points out.
“The proposals avoid responsibility for this group, leaving the matter to Disability Discrimination legislation, which can be invoked after the event, when it has gone wrong. This is wholly inadequate.”
Nettleton also pointed out that Student Finance England, which receives applications for Disabled Students Allowances, will not accept special care requirements form the new EHC Plans.
“Student Finance England will require fresh post-16 reports confirming conditions that have existed, in some cases, since pre-school Statements. This should stop,” declared Nettleton, who wants EHC Plans to cover Universities and Apprenticeships and to be acceptable to Student Finance England.
No student left behind?
The campaigning group Every Disabled Child Matters (EDCM) is also unhappy with the shape of the Children and Families Bill, for broadly similar reasons.
“The key difference between EHC and previous SEN statements is that the new plans will extend beyond school to significantly improve the rights of young people to support in college and extending entitlements to apprenticeships,” said EDCM Campaigns Manager Laura Courtney. “This is a major improvement that we welcome.”
“But young people will stop being able to get an EHC plan if they go to university. There are many benefits of EHC plans continuing into higher education, including reducing the need for a further reassessment and ensuring co-ordinated support continues for young people who may be moving away from home.
“EDCM believes that young people at university should also be eligible for an Education, Health and Care plan. We are keen to hear from the government why they have decided to leave universities out of the new framework and whether they will re-consider this position,” said Courtney.