Minister warned over rights after launching residential special school review

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Continuing to fund residential special schools is a breach of the human rights of disabled young people, campaigners have warned the government after it launched a review of provision.

The Department for Education (DfE) this week launched an independent review to examine the “outcomes and experiences” of children and young people attending residential special schools and colleges.

It has appointed Dame Christine Lenehan, director of the Council for Disabled Children, to head the review.

Dame Christine has issued a call for evidence, seeking the views of past and present pupils and students, their parents and carers, as well as staff, local authorities, representative bodies and academics.

The new review was launched on 23 January, just three days before Dame Christine published a highly-critical review into the care of disabled children and young people with challenging behaviour and complex mental health needs – including those in 52-week residential special schools – on behalf of the Department of Health (DH).

The review, These Are Our Children, published today (Thursday), calls for “urgent action at a national level to prevent these children being institutionalised at an early age, at huge cost to the taxpayer and with low ambitions for improving their lives”.

Dame Christine concludes: “There’s a well-worn path for this group of disabled children, away from their home communities into long term placements that often act a last resort.

“Hidden and separated from the rest of society, these children become ‘special cases’, for whom the aspirations we have for other children and young people don’t apply.

“We urgently need a shift in thinking, so that ‘these’ children are recognised as ‘our’ children, as members of our communities with exactly the same rights to health and education, and family and community life.”

She called for the rights of disabled children with complex needs and challenging behaviour to be recognised by the NHS constitution, DfE, DH and local commissioners.

She said there were an estimated 170 under-18s with learning difficulties and/or autism in inpatient care, and 635 aged 18 to 25, while more than 1,000 children (1,129) were in 52-week residential special schools. 

DfE made no mention of the review Dame Christine had been carrying out for DH in its launch of her call for evidence.

Among the questions she is asking for the DfE review are why students came to be placed in residential institutions, “what good quality support looks like”, and the experiences and outcomes of children and young people who have attended residential schools and colleges, and how they could be improved.

But The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) said there should be no place for residential special schools and colleges.

It said the government should instead “fully fund local inclusive education and support services for disabled children as a matter of urgency”.

And it called on the government to fulfil its obligation to promote disabled children’s rights to inclusive education and to family life under the UN Convention for Persons with Disabilities and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Last August, the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities published new guidance that made it clear that all segregated education should end, and should be replaced by “inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate supports”.

The UN guidance said that the right for disabled students not to be discriminated against “includes the right not to be segregated”.

And it pointed out that countries that have signed up to the UN convention have “a specific and continuing obligation” to move as quickly as possible towards “the full realization” of article 24 of the convention, which describes the right of disabled people to an inclusive education system.

ALLFIE said the “vast majority” of pupils and students were placed in residential special schools against their own and their parents’ wishes.

Simone Aspis (pictured), ALLFIE’s policy and campaigns coordinator, said: “We know of parents being forced into accepting a residential school placement because of the local authority’s systematic failure to provide good quality local support and inclusive education provision.

“We want the review to highlight the real and negative impact that residential special school provision has upon disabled children’s and adults’ life opportunities as a result of their being taken out of their local communities and placed in residential special school institutions often hundreds of miles away from home, and how it undermines family life and social cohesion.

“Austerity cannot be an excuse when the government allows local authorities to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds per residential special school placement which could be used to fund an excellent local inclusive education placement.

“Continuing to fund residential special school provision is a breach of disabled children’s human rights to inclusive education and family life.”

She added: “Residential special schools typify the outdated view that disabled children should be hidden away from society, a mentality that is the foundation of prejudice, ignorance and discrimination, and we know that institutional settings leave disabled children vulnerable to abuse.

“These schools have no place in a society that values the lifelong equality of disabled people.”

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England said in a report two years ago that there were more than 6,000 children boarding at 277 residential special schools in January 2014, with more than 15,000 children attending such schools in total.

The new review was ordered by Edward Timpson, the minister for vulnerable children and families.

Dame Christine will be supported by Mark Geraghty, chief executive of the Seashell Trust, which runs a residential special school and college.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Every child, no matter the obstacles they face, should have the same opportunities for success as any other.

“This independent review will look at how the experiences of children and young people attending residential special schools and colleges can be improved, to ensure the right support is in place.”

The call for evidence runs until 17 March. Dame Christine will report back to the government later this year.

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