Lord [Colin] Low’s amendment would have placed the commitment among the general principles of the bill, in line with the government’s obligations under article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
His amendment made clear “the need to continue to develop an inclusive system where parents of disabled children have increasing access to mainstream schools and staff and which have the capacity to meet the needs of disabled children”.
Lord Low said – mirroring calls by The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) – that the references to inclusion in the bill’s latest draft code of practice had been “very much watered down” in comparison with current guidance.
And he also warned, as ALLFIE has done, that draft regulations attached to the bill would allow a child to be placed in a special academy or free school even if they do not have an education, health and care plan (EHCP), the planned replacement for statements of special educational needs (SEN).
The peer said this risked a return to a time when parents “could be pushed into accepting a special school place for their child, not because it is the best placement for them but because the mainstream school had not, for whatever reason, provided the appropriate support”.
His fellow disabled peer, Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, strongly supported his amendment.
The Labour peer said that Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who was absent from the debate with a heavy cold, had given “eloquent testimony of the blight that her segregated education laid on her life. It was not necessary, and it is something that has never left her.”
She added: “A lot of work still needs to be done to support the development of inclusive education across the country, especially when half of our disabled children and young people with SEN are still being placed in segregated educational provision.
“I am very concerned that without an explicit duty, local authorities will become complacent, and, more worryingly, will revert to the practice of investing increasingly limited resources in existing segregated, rather than inclusive, educational provision.”
Lord Nash, the Conservative junior education minister, said the bill maintained “the general principle of inclusion” through some of its key provisions.
He said he was “happy to consider how the code of practice can be further improved”, but that the government did not believe it was necessary to add to the bill’s general principles in order to fulfil its commitments under the UN convention.
And he said Lord Low’s amendment “could run the risk of being perceived as a threat to specialist provision”.
Lord Nash also insisted that the draft regulations on allowing some children without EHCPs to be placed in special academies was “not a blanket policy and it is also definitely not part of any dark plan”.
He said: “On the contrary, the government’s intention is to facilitate innovative new approaches and provision for the benefit of children and young people with SEN.”
And he said there would be “safeguards” to ensure children without EHCPs were not forced into special schools.
A vote on Lord Low’s amendment was lost by 205 votes to 222.
The bill is now approaching its final parliamentary stages, and should become law early in the new year.
The government’s commitment to including disabled children in mainstream schools has been in doubt ever since it included a pledge in its “programme for government” to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in disabled children’s education.
19 December 2013