About 20 protesters from the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) and Disabled People Against Cuts entered the DfE offices in Westminster dressed in white sheets, to signify their attempts to “banish the ghosts of segregation past”.
At one stage, several of the protesters blocked the main entrance from inside the building, but after negotiations with civil servants, they moved into a nearby waiting room.
They pledged to continue their occupation until either the Conservative junior education minister Lord Nash or education secretary Michael Gove agreed to meet them.
They eventually left the building after DfE officials arranged a meeting with Lord Nash on 16 December.
ALLFIE had been trying for six months to secure a meeting with one of the ministers responsible for the bill.
Tara Flood, ALLFIE’s director, told civil servants who had come to talk to the protesters: “We have played the game for six months and we have just got to the stage of ‘enough is enough’.
“This government is determined to remove disabled children and young people with SEN from the mainstream educational system, which is a clear breach of the UN [disability]convention.
“We are not going to stay quiet any longer. We are not prepared to allow this and future generations of disabled people to be cast onto the wasteland of segregated education.”
One of the disabled protesters, Anthony Ford, told Disability News Service: “I feel frankly that all disabled children need to have access to education in mainstream schools and to be part of society.
“We want to move forwards. We know inclusive education works. It has worked for the last 30 years. Why are they saying it doesn’t work?”
Another disabled activist, Robert Punton, vice-chair of the Midlands Alliance for Inclusive Living and Education, said he had attended a special school in Newcastle in the 1970s and early 1980s.
He said: “I went through the system… when they believed the fate of people with severe support needs was bound to be either in sheltered employment or residential care – there was no belief in the inclusion of people with high support needs in the mainstream.
“I am here to ensure that disabled children of this generation do not go through the same segregation or struggles to live independently that I had to.”
The protest took place on Human Rights Day, with ALLFIE pointing out that the bill fails to provide sufficient protection for disabled learners’ human rights to a mainstream education, as provided by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
They believe that the children and families bill – currently approaching its final parliamentary stages – will “open the floodgates” to increasing numbers of disabled children being forced into special schools, and undo decades of progress towards including disabled children and young people in mainstream education.
Flood said: “It is an absolute disgrace that the government continues to ignore warnings that they are damaging the right of disabled learners to be in mainstream education.”
The protest came as DNS continued to attempt to secure answers from DfE to questions about the bill first submitted on 28 November.
DNS has been trying to confirm that draft regulations attached to the bill would mean that even disabled children who do not have high enough support needs for one of the new health and care plans – which will replace statements of special educational needs (SEN) – could be sent to any special school, including those run by local authorities.
DfE has also refused to confirm that large parts of the Inclusive Schooling guidance – which offers advice on including children with SEN in mainstream schools – have been dropped from the code of practice which accompanies the bill.
Campaigners believe this will weaken the SEN framework that has traditionally supported disabled children and young people in mainstream education.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “The bill retains the general principle of inclusion and the draft SEN code of practice makes clear that most children with SEN will be taught in mainstream schools.
“The draft code includes key elements of the Inclusive Schooling guidance. The code of practice is currently out for consultation and we welcome views.”
12 December 2013