Several peers have raised fears about the impact on disabled pupils of a new government bill that will make it easier for schools to opt out of local authority control.
Crossbench and Labour members of the Lords raised a series of concerns during the second reading of the academies bill, mirroring concerns raised in recent weeks by disabled people’s organisations such as the Alliance for Inclusive Education.
Lord [Colin] Low, the disabled crossbench peer, said he wanted the bill to be “disability-proofed” and made “fit for purpose to meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs (SEN)”.
He called for more detail on how academies would ensure their admissions policies were fair to disabled children and those with SEN, and pledged to introduce amendments to ensure that the existing SEN framework applied to academies.
He also warned that the new legislation could weaken local education authorities and lead to the loss of their SEN expertise.
Lord Low said campaigners were concerned that the new academies would not be accountable to parents of disabled children and those with SEN, making it harder for them to ensure their children’s needs were met.
Lord [Brian] Rix, another crossbench peer and president of Mencap, also raised concerns about the accountability of academies.
He said the government’s equality impact assessment of its new bill found the proportion of pupils with SEN who achieved five good GCSEs – including English and maths – was lower in academies than the national average.
Baroness Morgan, a former Labour children’s minister, warned that parents of children with autism were already reporting problems with admission to academies, while the Labour peer Baroness Massey said exclusions of children with SEN were disproportionately higher in academies.
Lord Turnbull, a crossbench peer, said academies “must accept an obligation to take their fair share of SEN children” and “must not be allowed to turn their backs and place the burden on the schools that remain with local education authorities”.
Lord Hill, the Conservative junior education minister, promised that academies would have the same duties to meet the SEN code of practice as maintained schools (those funded by the local education authority).
He said local authorities would retain responsibility for SEN assessments and SEN statements, including funding and monitoring of pupils with SEN statements, and ensuring arrangements were in place for them.
He added: “Academies will have to ensure fair access and deliver provision. This is such an important area – I want to get it right.”
The bill’s committee stage is due to begin on 21 June.
Meanwhile, the Department for Education has refused to comment on reports that Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat children and families minister, is to announce a review of the SEN system.
The Sunday Times reported that the review was “expected to consider tightening up the criteria” for children to be identified as having SEN.
Such a review would come only months after Brian Lamb completed a 21-month inquiry into the SEN system for the Labour government.
His inquiry called last December for urgent and major reform, and an end to the “culture of low expectations” for disabled children and those with SEN.
A Department for Education spokesman said the Sunday Times report was “speculation”, and added: “At the moment there has been no announcement.”
8 June 2010