Academies bill ‘could undermine specialist support for pupils’


Disabled peers have raised fears that the government’s academies bill could “fatally undermine” the provision of specialist support to disabled pupils.

They fear that withdrawing money from councils’ specialist support budgets to give to new academy schools – as proposed by the bill – will leave too little money for local authorities to provide services to children with “low incidence” special educational needs (SEN) or impairments.

The bill aims to expand the number of academies – publicly-funded independent schools that are free from council control.

The government has said that academies would be able to buy back specialist support from their local authority.

But Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins pointed to research by the National Deaf Children’s Society which found that out of 66 local authorities where a deaf child with a statement of SEN was enrolled in an existing academy, in only 17 did the academy buy in support from the council.

Baroness Wilkins said she backed calls by the National Sensory Impairment Partnership to set up a working group to examine the problem urgently.

She added: “Children with low incidence needs may, by definition, be fewer in number. That cannot be an excuse to pass a bill which would potentially prevent many from getting the support that they need.

“I urge the minister to do more than just recognise that there is a problem. He must find solutions before this bill is allowed to pass.”

Lord [Colin] Low said specialist services – such as support for mainstream teachers, Braille teaching, and communication support – were “at the heart of special education provision”.

He said it was “absolutely essential” that the government made it clear “exactly how specialist support services will be sustained” when the bill becomes law.

Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson – who was speaking in place of Baroness [Jane] Campbell – said that the all party parliamentary disability group had “frequently been told that too many disabled children are not getting the specialist support that they need at school fully to engage with the curriculum”.

She said: “I am concerned that the bill may have the unintended consequence of worsening this problem.”

Lord Hill, the Conservative junior education minister, said he would meet with Baroness Wilkins to discuss the issue further.

The bill completed its report stage in the Lords, with its third reading due on 13 July.

8 July 2010