Postcards from Europe: Reykjavik

Philippa StobbsAuthor Philippa StobbsDate 01 Feb 2017

A paper presented at the latest meeting of the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education was about de-centralisation. Across Europe, in education, as in other areas of public life, funding and other responsibilities are delegated to different levels: to regional and local bodies and to individual institutions. There are arguments in favour of this: they mostly relate to having greater local democratic control, being ‘closer to the people,’ closer to the local community and an understand of local needs, moving more money to the ‘front line’.

The main risks inherent in decentralisation arise from the potential inequity across regions and localities, the risk of a ‘postcode lottery,’ but also duplication of functions and less efficient use of resources. Alongside this there is, in addition, a much higher risk of inequity for particular groups of children, with some evidence of increasing segregation and further disadvantage for some learners.

However, often delegation is within a framework of central policy and national legislation so, in reality, there is usually a mix of delegation and central control.

My question is then whether, alongside delegation, central policy can minimise and mitigate the risks for particular groups of children, thinking in particular of disabled children and those with SEN?

The difficulty is that, whilst the central policies are clearly articulated, they are not sufficiently robustly implemented, inspected or challenged locally. Or, looked at another way, there are other policies that drive local behaviour more forcefully – we might, for example, point to the emphasis placed on attainment in accountability measures.

In the English system, we can see an increasing percentage of children with a statement or EHC plan being placed in special rather than mainstream schools and a shocking increase in the numbers of children with a statement or EHC plan who are being educated other than at school: an increase from 3,305 children in 2010 to 5,415 in 2016. At the same time, claims of disability discrimination to the Tribunal remain resolutely low in comparison with SEN appeals and this, despite the point made by our first ever president of the Tribunal, that the levels of claims did not reflect the reality for disabled children.

So how can Europe help us? What works to reduce these inequities in other European countries? What solutions have other countries come up with? What mix of delegation and central policies do others find works? The difficulty is that it isn’t that simple: there is an increasing recognition that you cannot simply adopt a policy from another country and implant it in this country. You can, however, begin by understanding what enables that policy to work, the conditions that enable it to thrive. This is why, increasingly, European projects analyse the factors that enable an inclusive project to work and to work well. This is the approach being taken with the Inclusive Early Childhood Education project which will report later this year.

So, whilst there are no silver bullets lurking in combinations of local and national arrangements across Europe, there is some potential to better understand the problem.

If Europeans can help us to understand the problem, can we, despite our declared intentions of coming out of the EU, work together to find solutions? In Reykjavik, we were promised fermented shark meat at the evening reception. There is a risk that I sound ungrateful, so all I will say is that, whatever the answer is, it is not fermented shark meat.  

Wish you were here,

Philippa