Campaigners say an election campaign confrontation between David Cameron and the parent of a disabled child has exposed contradictions in the Conservative manifesto.
They were speaking after Cameron was questioned in front of a mass of media about his policies on inclusive education by Jonathan Bartley, from south London.
Bartley asked Cameron why his manifesto had pledged to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools”.
Bartley said there was currently a bias “against” the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream schools and told him of the two-year struggle to secure a mainstream place for his son Samuel.
Cameron told Bartley that he had personally written the part of the manifesto about inclusive education – which also pledges a “moratorium on the ideologically-driven closure of special schools” – but said he would “never do anything to make it more difficult for children to go to a mainstream school”.
When Bartley accused him of wanting to segregate disabled children, Cameron said: “I don’t. I absolutely don’t. I really don’t.”
It is not the first time the Conservatives have faced embarrassment over their inclusion policy on the campaign trail.
Last week, a disabled Conservative parliamentary candidate had to defend the policy, despite admitting that his own education was probably damaged by attending a special school.
Simone Aspis, campaigns and policy co-ordinator for the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said that parents who choose special schools do so because their children have not been given the support they need to succeed in a mainstream school.
She welcomed the profile given to the issue during the election campaign, and said there had been a lot of anger and shock among inclusion campaigners at what the Conservatives say about inclusive education in their manifesto.
Aspis said: “It doesn’t fit with any of their policies around having a fairer society.
“The fact that Cameron wrote this [part of the]manifesto from a personal perspective as opposed to Conservative policy questions its basis.”
Conservative candidates that she and her colleagues meet on the streets say they are in favour of including disabled children in mainstream education, she added.
Aspis said: “[Bartley] made some very valid points, particularly around the difficulties he faces and many other parents face in being able to get the support that they need to participate in mainstream schooling.”
Writing in the Guardian, Bartley said that inclusion “takes commitment and a lot of work”, which “has actually been lacking in the education system, despite all the talk of inclusion from Labour”.
He said the problem had been that mainstream schools “have not been equipped well enough to be able to show parents and others that they work for children with special educational needs”, and that the move towards inclusion had been “half-hearted”.
David Laws, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said it was clear that “some parents are concerned that under the Tories we could lurch back to a policy of only having youngsters in special schools”.
28 April 2010