SEN reforms in new bill ‘could lead to rise in segregated schooling’

The government’s new children and families bill could see many more disabled children being forced into segregated education, campaigners have warned.

The bill, which was published and received its first Commons reading this week, covers a range of issues, including reform of the special educational needs (SEN) system, and of adoption, family justice, flexible working and childcare.

SEN statements will be replaced with a new single assessment process and combined education, health and social care plans for children with SEN from birth to 25, although the government has also made it clear that it wants to reduce the number of children and young people identified as having SEN.

The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) is now working its way through the legislation line-by-line, to see exactly what has changed since a draft version of the bill was published last October.

But Tara Flood, ALLFIE’s director, said it was already clear that the bill was “a huge concern”.

She said: “We see increased ‘opportunities’ for segregation of disabled children and young people and those with SEN.”

She said government rhetoric about “choice” was not about building the capacity of mainstream schools to accept disabled children and young people but about “increasing the opportunity for segregation”.

Flood said parents would be more likely to have to take legal action to secure support their disabled child would receive under the current SEN system.

Only children assessed as having SEN will qualify for one of the new combined plans, which could see disabled children without SEN being placed in segregated special schools because of a lack of funding to support them in mainstream settings.

Flood said the coalition was fulfilling its threat to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in education, through both the bill and its wider reforms.

She pointed to increasing numbers of special academies and free schools, access concerns over the government’s new standardised designs for building primary and secondary schools, and the shift away from modular learning and coursework and towards more exams.

The Every Disabled Child Matters (EDCM) campaign, and lawyers Irwin Mitchell, also expressed concern about the exclusion of children without SEN from the new system of support.

Laura Courtney, EDCM’s campaign manager, said the plans risked a “two-tier system of support”, in which “disabled children without SEN risk being marginalized and given a lower priority”.

The Commons education committee – and many disability organisations – had called for the single plans to be extended to all disabled children.

But Edward Timpson, the Conservative education minister, said in a command paper published alongside the bill that “most” disabled children would be covered by the legislation, while those who were not would still be protected by other laws, such as anti-discrimination measures in the Equality Act.

And he said local authorities could provide their own “non-statutory” combined plans for disabled children without SEN if they wished to do so.

Meanwhile, new research has revealed that disabled young people are being denied the right to have a say in how the services they rely on are delivered.

The lottery-funded research was carried out by a group of 16 disabled young people, in partnership with ALLFIE and three children’s charities.

Rebecca, one of the young researchers, said: “If more services took account of young disabled people’s views in decision-making we would have better and more effective services.”

Among their recommendations, they want to see disabled young people’s participation placed at the centre of the children and families bill.

7 February 2013

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SEN reforms: Government pushes ahead with anti-inclusion plans

The government is to push ahead with plans to make it harder for disabled children to attend mainstream schools, detailed plans published this week have revealed.

Announcing the government’s proposals for reform of special educational needs (SEN), Liberal Democrat children’s minister Sarah Teather focused on plans to give parents more choice and control over their children’s support.

But the detailed document makes it clear that there has been no change of heart in the coalition over its pledge to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in the education system.

The reforms were set out in the government’s formal response to a public consultation on last year’s SEN green paper, which resulted in 2,400 responses from individuals and organisations.

Although parents would theoretically have the right to seek a place at any state-funded school for their disabled child, they could be denied a place at a mainstream school if it was thought “unsuitable to the child’s age, aptitude, ability or SEN”, could prejudice the education of other children, or was not an “efficient” use of resources.

Currently, they can only be turned down if the placement could harm other children’s education. Versions of the other two “caveats” were repealed by the government in 2001 following years of campaigning by disabled activists and their allies.

The veteran inclusive education campaign Richard Rieser, co-founder of the Reverse the Bias campaign, said the caveat relating to suitability was “much stricter” than the equivalent scrapped in 2001.

He said the government’s plans were “a huge step backwards” and “a threat to all families of disabled children in this country”.

Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said the proposals showed the government was “pushing through an agenda to remove disabled children from mainstream schools” and was intent on “turning the clock back”.

She said local authorities would use the argument of an inefficient use of resources to deny disabled children places in mainstream education, particularly in the current economic climate.

And she pointed out that there were almost no references in the government document to inclusive education.

The Department for Education (DfE) refused to comment when asked if the document represented an attack on inclusive education.

The DfE also made it clear in its document that it wanted to use “tighter guidance” to reduce the number of children seen as having SEN.

But Teather’s focus was on proposals to replace SEN statements with a single assessment process that will lead – from 2014 – to a new education, health and care plan for disabled children from birth to the age of 25.

All families given such a plan will be able to choose to have it delivered through a personal budget, allowing them to decide how to spend the money.

But there are concerns that this new system could lead to rationing of support for disabled children, in the same way that ever-stricter eligibility criteria have been used to make it harder for disabled adults to secure social care from their local authorities.

Flood said the new system would lead to the number of disabled children receiving support being “massively reduced”.

Teather said the current system was “not fit for purpose” and it was “unacceptable” that thousands of families were “forced to go from pillar to post, facing agonising delays and bureaucracy to get support, therapy and equipment”.

She said: “These reforms will put parents in charge. We trust parents to do the right thing for their own child because they know what is best.”

Among other measures, local authorities will have to publish a “local offer” showing the support available to disabled children and young people and those with SEN.

Families will also have to go through mediation over SEN disputes, while the DfE will trial the idea of giving disabled children themselves the right to appeal if they are unhappy with their support.

And a new £3m supported internships trial will be launched in 15 further education colleges this autumn for 16-to-25 year olds with higher support needs.

The measures announced by Teather will be included early next year in a children and families bill.

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SEN reforms: Campaigners plot legal action over anti-inclusion policy

Disabled campaigners are likely to launch legal action against the government over its anti-inclusion education policy.

Campaigners for inclusive education accused the government of “pushing through an agenda to remove disabled children from mainstream schools”, after the publication of its much-delayed plans for SEN reform this week.

Among those plans, the Department for Education (DfE) will introduce legislation to make it harder for parents to choose a mainstream school for their disabled child, by re-introducing – and toughening up – anti-inclusion laws that were repealed in 2001.

Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said there would have to be some kind of legal challenge to the government’s stance, although it was too early to say what form this would take.

She said: “I think the gloves have now got to come off. We have probably been far too polite so far.

“It is clear that the government isn’t interested in listening to voices that challenge their thinking. The document is evidence of that. All the concerns we have raised have been absolutely ignored.”

Flood said the government had clearly breached its obligations under article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to “ensure an inclusive education system at all levels”.

The legal action could ultimately mean disabled people petitioning the UN convention committee over a breach of their rights, if they fail with a case in the UK and European courts.

Flood said campaigners were also likely to compare the UK government’s stance and policies with other countries that have signed the UN convention and have taken more inclusive approaches to education.

Richard Rieser, co-founder of the Reverse the Bias campaign, launched last year in response to the government’s pledge to “remove the bias towards inclusion”, said he feared the government’s plans would be “ramrodded through parliament”.

He said Reverse the Bias would be seeking a “wide breadth of allies, whether they are unions, disability organisations or parents’ organisations”.

He said: “We are going to have to educate people as we did [last year] with the [SEN] green paper.”

Rieser warned that it would take several years for any legal case to pass through the court system, and added: “Legal judgments on their own are not going to be enough. We are going to have to build a mass movement. We are going to have to educate the opposition. Parent power will be the key and disabled people need to be involved with that.”

The Department for Education (DfE) refused to comment when asked if its plans represented an attack on inclusive education.

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Queen’s speech: Campaigners await details of coalition’s ‘inclusion bias’ plans

The government is to push ahead with special educational needs (SEN) reform, but has yet to say if it will follow through on threats to reduce disabled children’s rights to be educated in mainstream schools.

The coalition announced in this week’s Queen’s speech – which marks the beginning of a new parliamentary session – that it intended to introduce a new children and families bill.

The bill, expected early in 2013, will introduce a “single, simpler assessment process” and new education, health and care plans for disabled children and young people and those with SEN up to the age of 25.

Every individual or family with an education, health and care plan will have the right for it to be delivered through a personal budget, giving them control over how they spend the money.

If parents disagree with their local authority over a child’s support at school, they will have to use mediation before appealing, while the government says it will also trial a new right to appeal for children unhappy with their support.

But there was no mention of the coalition’s pledge to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in disabled children’s education, a promise which has sparked anger and protests by disabled activists.

The government published its SEN green paper last year, with a public consultation ending in June. Its much-delayed response to that consultation – which will include a detailed timetable for its reforms to the SEN system in England – is expected next week.

Some green paper measures were welcomed last year, but disabled activists warned that plans to reduce parents’ rights to have their disabled children educated in mainstream schools – and remove the so-called “bias towards inclusion” – would set the fight for inclusive education back 20 years.

Henrietta Doyle, Inclusion London’s policy officer, said they were “very concerned” about the government’s plans to roll back progress on inclusive education.

She said the government’s failure to mention any such measures in the Queen’s speech or a subsequent briefing document could mean they had responded positively to concerns raised during the consultation, or that they were just not being “explicit” about their plans.

Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat children’s minister, said the SEN reforms would give parents “real choice” and would join up health, education and social care services.

She said it was “unacceptable” that parents were forced to “spend so much time going from pillar to post just to get the basic support their children need”.

The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) warned last autumn that proposals in the green paper would create “many more hurdles” for parents to overcome in finding a school and securing an assessment of their children’s needs and funding for support, and would provide fewer opportunities for challenging the system.

ALLFIE also warned that introducing a single education, health and care plan to replace a statement of SEN could expose disabled children to the same restrictions on eligibility that are faced by disabled adults trying to secure council-funded care and support.

With many local authorities restricting care services to those with “critical” needs, it said last year, support for disabled learners could become “even more of a postcode lottery”.

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MP hints at Labour bias towards inclusive education

The MP leading a review of Labour’s special educational needs (SEN) policy has suggested it will recommend a far more inclusive approach than the coalition government’s anti-inclusion stance.

Sharon Hodgson, the shadow minister for children and families, was taking evidence from campaigners at an event organised by the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE).

Tara Flood, ALLFIE’s director, said the Labour party was now in a “fantastic” position to “do something innovative, to do something creative and brave” on inclusion, but must first realise that the “current system isn’t working”.

She said: “This is the chance when the current government are so determined in terms of inclusion to turn the clock back 30 years. Those of us who succeed do that despite the current system.”

Nicholas Russell, co-chair of Labour’s disabled members group, said the review needed to address the bullying of disabled pupils.

He said: “If you deal with bullying in schools then hopefully you will have a lot less disability hate crime.”

He also called for the review to recommend that more disabled people become school governors, and are given the support they need to do that.

Simone Aspis, ALLFIE’s policy and campaigns coordinator, told Hodgson that disabled people must have “complete human and civil rights to access mainstream education”, while there must be a focus on the barriers that need to be removed to enable disabled people to learn.

Hodgson, whose son is disabled, said she believed that including disabled children in mainstream schools would help other children grow up without prejudice, which was “why we really have to fight for this”.

She said she disagreed with David Cameron’s view that there was a “bias towards inclusion” in the education system.

And she suggested that her review would recommend mandatory SEN training for all student teachers, with schools also forced to use one of their five annual “inset” training days to improve their teachers’ SEN knowledge.

Sarifa Patel, ALLFIE’s co-chair, told Hodgson that disability history should be taught in schools, while teachers should be taught about the social model of disability during their training.

She also pointed out that parents of disabled children from black and minority ethnic communities faced the additional barrier of institutional racism in the education system.

Miro Griffiths, a disability equality consultant, said schools must understand how disabled young people can be supported into employment through schemes such as Access to Work.

Lucy Bartley, whose husband Jonathan challenged David Cameron in front of TV cameras during the 2010 election campaign on the Conservative leader’s pledge to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools”, said the resistance they had faced in trying to ensure their disabled son Samuel attended a mainstream school had been “all about attitudes”.

She said his eventual inclusion had changed the culture of the school, and added: “Enabling our children to be within mainstream provision changes that provision.”

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‘Fantastic opportunity’ of direct payments ‘could be derailed by colleges’

Pilot schemes that will give direct payments to disabled students so they can choose their own support should be a “fantastic” opportunity for them to flourish in mainstream further education (FE), say inclusive education campaigners.

The schemes – part of the new Education Act – will see young disabled people and their parents given direct control of funding that is currently used by schools and colleges.

One of these sources of funding is additional learning support (ALS), which is handed to colleges and other training providers.

The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) said that giving disabled young people direct payments instead of forcing them to accept the educational support provided by colleges will make it easier for them to take mainstream courses.

The government has decided that the 36 English local authorities taking part in the pilot scheme will first have to ask colleges to release the ALS funding so it can be used as a direct payment.

But ALLFIE has warned that FE colleges could sabotage the pilot scheme by refusing to hand over the ALS cash, which is sometimes used to subsidise segregated courses, such as those on preparing for work or learning independent living skills.

ALLFIE said students with learning difficulties were four times more likely to be enrolled on a segregated course than a mainstream course.

Simone Aspis, ALLFIE’s policy and campaigns coordinator, said: “ALLFIE would like these pilots to establish fantastic practice in providing disabled young people with the support they need in order to flourish in mainstream further education.”

But she added: “For this to be achieved, government policy on further education funding needs to be amended so that education providers have a new requirement to provide one-to-one support packages for disabled learners.”

ALLFIE also wants the government to stop education providers using ALS funding to subsidise segregated courses.

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‘Free’ special schools go-ahead is ‘disaster’, say campaigners

The decision by the government to give the go-ahead for the first three special schools to be set up under its “free schools” programme has caused anger and dismay among campaigners for inclusive education.

Education secretary Michael Gove announced this week that he had approved the opening of special free schools in September 2012 in Southampton, Peterborough and Leeds. A further 17 applications were unsuccessful.

Gove encouraged those that had been unsuccessful to resubmit “even stronger” applications, and said he was “committed to both increasing and improving the provision available to children with special educational needs (SEN)”.

But Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), described news of the three new special schools as “a disaster”.

She said: “It is so counter to what I think the sector wants and what I think disabled children and young people deserve.”

She said the evidence showed that setting up free schools would strip resources from local authorities and existing mainstream schools.

Schools that want to lead on inclusion were already finding it difficult, because of the way learning was measured and resources were allocated, she said.

She added: “That is going to become that much more difficult when the money for SEN is spread across even more education providers.

“The government is taking the position of ‘to hell with disabled children’s and young people’s human rights to inclusive education’, as set out in Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

She said the government’s decision to allow the new special schools to open was “a complete disregard of what is a fundamental human right”.

She added: “It is also the case that the creation of three new ‘free’ special schools, at a time when local authority budgets are already facing decimating cuts, can only make it much worse for parents who want their disabled child to be included in a local mainstream school.”

Free schools are non-profit making, independent, state-funded schools, that are outside the control of local education authorities. They can also employ unqualified teachers.

The three new special schools are Rosewood School in Southampton, for pupils aged two to 19; the City of Peterborough Special Academy, for four to 18-year-olds, which will be built on the same site as a new mainstream academy; and The Lighthouse School in Leeds, for students from 11 to 19.

The veteran disabled activist Micheline Mason, joint organiser of Reverse the Bias, which campaigns against the government’s pledge to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in the education system, said she was “extremely worried” by the announcement.

She said: “Free schools are another component of the relentless drive to support privilege, inequality, and class and disability discrimination, by the right wing.

“They are also a very convenient tool to divide parents and distract them from becoming allies to their children and supporting our struggle for inclusion.”

Meanwhile, a new report shows that children with SEN have made “remarkable progress” under a pilot programme set up under the Labour government.

The Achievement for All programme, which has been running in about 450 schools for the last two years, saw children with SEN make greater progress in English and maths than other children with SEN across the country, while a “significant number” exceeded the progress of children without SEN.

The pilot also narrowed the gap in attainment between children with and without SEN.

Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat children’s minister, said the government would provide £14 million to help fund the roll-out of the programme across England.

The key aim of the programme is to improve attainment in English and maths through “close tracking of progress and intervention”, working to engage families in their children’s learning, and removing barriers such as bullying and emotional problems.

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