A Liberal Democrat minister has defended the coalition’s controversial commitment to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in disabled children’s education.
Sarah Teather, the children and families minister, was speaking to Disability News Service about her plans for reforming the special educational needs (SEN) system.
Teather claimed that the coalition’s pledge to “remove the bias” was about “parental choice”, giving parents with disabled children the legal right to name the state-funded school they want their child to attend, whether it is a special or a mainstream school, or a free school or academy.
Disabled activists and allies in the inclusive education movement have repeatedly warned that the coalition’s pledge and SEN policies will lead to a new generation of special schools.
They believe the government’s reforms will make it harder for parents to secure a mainstream education for their disabled children and destroy years of progress towards a more inclusive system.
Asked if she would fulfil the “bias” pledge – made in the coalition’s “programme for government” in May 2010 – Teather said there had been “lots of parents who felt that they wanted their child to go to a special school and they thought their child was forced to go to mainstream and then having gone to mainstream they thought they weren’t getting the right kind of support”.
She also insisted that creating more academies and free schools would not make it harder for disabled children to access mainstream schools.
She said there would be a legal right for parents to name any state-funded school – including academies and free schools – that they want their disabled child to attend, and added: “That is a guarantee in the legal duty that you can name any school so you have a right to go there.
“We have given that commitment in the green paper and we intend to follow that through.”
She also spoke about the move to replace SEN statements with a single assessment process that will lead to a new education, health and care plan for disabled children from birth to the age of 25, with an option to have that plan delivered through a personal budget.
Asked about the fear that the new system could lead to the rationing of support for disabled children, in the same way that council cuts have made it harder for disabled adults to secure social care, she said it would keep all the current statutory duties under the system of SEN statements but would “extend them up the age range”.
She said that disabled children’s rights to support under the new system “should be stronger and not weaker”.
Teather had been speaking at an event in central London organised by the deafblind charity Sense, and attended by Princess Anne, the charity’s patron.
Sense was launching a new report, Supporting Success, which highlights how local authorities in England have failed to identify as many as 3,000 of the country’s estimated 4,000 deafblind children, and so are not providing them with the specialist support they need.
The report calls on the government to ensure that early identification of deafblind children is “at the very heart” of its reforms.
Among other recommendations, the report calls for a “truly joined up approach to supporting disabled children across education, health and social care agencies”.
Gillian Morbey, chief executive of Sense, said: “Early identification is critical. Unless the children are identified, we can’t support them.”
She said the charity was “always” concerned about the potential rationing of support, and added: “The idea of parents having that power and choice [through a personal budget] is brilliant, but it is only brilliant if it is real choice and real money.”
John Dickinson-Lilley, Sense’s deputy head of public policy, said there were also real concerns about the move towards more academies and free schools causing a “fragmentation” in the provision of support services for deafblind and other disabled children.
He dismissed the coalition’s claim that there was a “bias towards inclusion” in disabled children’s education.
He said: “We do not believe there is a bias towards inclusion because parents tell us that they struggle to get their children into a mainstream school.”