Plans for ‘free’ special schools are a ‘major backwards step’


Teachers and parents want to open four new special schools in just one English county, as part of the government’s controversial “free schools” programme, causing huge concern among campaigners for inclusive education.

Three of the groups have discussed their plans to open free special schools with Suffolk County Council. The council said these groups – as well as another it has yet to meet – had been planning to submit proposals to the Department for Education (DfE).

Free schools are non-profit making, independent, state-funded schools, that are outside the control of local education authorities. They can also employ unqualified teachers.

Adrian Orr, the council’s senior adviser on social inclusion, said: “We are neither backing those proposals or against those proposals. We are of the view that it is better to have an open dialogue with those groups than not.”

But he said the groups would have to put a “very robust case together” to show that they “can run a school and that there is parental support there for it”.

Suffolk was “a reasonably inclusive county”, he said, with “relatively few maintained special schools” and “quite a high degree of inclusion in mainstream schools”.

Although he declined to name the groups, he said they were “local interest groups that feel there is a gap in the range of provision and are looking to fill it… people with a background in education and some parental support”.

Simone Aspis, policy and campaigns coordinator for the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said free special schools would suck resources away from special educational needs (SEN) provision in mainstream schools.

She said: “The people who will lose out will be disabled kids. Resources will be taken out in order to fund this segregated provision. It is completely outrageous and a major backwards step.

“Parents will find it harder and harder to argue for a mainstream placement because there will be less resources in the mainstream.”

The government’s SEN green paper, published in March, suggested that some free special schools could even be allowed to take children who do not have a statement of SEN.

Aspis said this would “make it easier for mainstream schools to dump children in special schools”, and added: “You are going to find a whole swathe of children being segregated, including not only disabled children but other children that do not conform to the norm.”

In June, members of the Reverse the Bias campaign marched through Westminster to protest against the government’s SEN policies, which include a pledge to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in the education system.

They warned then that the coalition’s policies would lead to a new generation of special schools.

Richard Rieser, co-founder of Reverse the Bias, said he was concerned about the proposed free special schools in Suffolk.

He said they would undermine the provision of mainstream education for disabled children, reduce the money the local education authority has to spend on inclusion, and allow mainstream schools that have failed to take inclusion seriously to push disabled children towards the new segregated schools.

He said he believed many free special schools would struggle to survive in the medium term and would eventually be taken over by large companies.

A DfE spokesman said it would not release the details of any groups seeking to open free special schools until the end of September, when it will announce the names of all successful free school applicants.

Of the 281 applications to open a free school, 20 are for special schools.

11 August 2011