The government’s new children and families bill could see many more disabled children being forced into segregated education, campaigners have warned.
The bill, which was published and received its first Commons reading this week, covers a range of issues, including reform of the special educational needs (SEN) system, and of adoption, family justice, flexible working and childcare.
SEN statements will be replaced with a new single assessment process and combined education, health and social care plans for children with SEN from birth to 25, although the government has also made it clear that it wants to reduce the number of children and young people identified as having SEN.
The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) is now working its way through the legislation line-by-line, to see exactly what has changed since a draft version of the bill was published last October.
But Tara Flood, ALLFIE’s director, said it was already clear that the bill was “a huge concern”.
She said: “We see increased ‘opportunities’ for segregation of disabled children and young people and those with SEN.”
She said government rhetoric about “choice” was not about building the capacity of mainstream schools to accept disabled children and young people but about “increasing the opportunity for segregation”.
Flood said parents would be more likely to have to take legal action to secure support their disabled child would receive under the current SEN system.
Only children assessed as having SEN will qualify for one of the new combined plans, which could see disabled children without SEN being placed in segregated special schools because of a lack of funding to support them in mainstream settings.
Flood said the coalition was fulfilling its threat to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in education, through both the bill and its wider reforms.
She pointed to increasing numbers of special academies and free schools, access concerns over the government’s new standardised designs for building primary and secondary schools, and the shift away from modular learning and coursework and towards more exams.
The Every Disabled Child Matters (EDCM) campaign, and lawyers Irwin Mitchell, also expressed concern about the exclusion of children without SEN from the new system of support.
Laura Courtney, EDCM’s campaign manager, said the plans risked a “two-tier system of support”, in which “disabled children without SEN risk being marginalized and given a lower priority”.
The Commons education committee – and many disability organisations – had called for the single plans to be extended to all disabled children.
But Edward Timpson, the Conservative education minister, said in a command paper published alongside the bill that “most” disabled children would be covered by the legislation, while those who were not would still be protected by other laws, such as anti-discrimination measures in the Equality Act.
And he said local authorities could provide their own “non-statutory” combined plans for disabled children without SEN if they wished to do so.
Meanwhile, new research has revealed that disabled young people are being denied the right to have a say in how the services they rely on are delivered.
The lottery-funded research was carried out by a group of 16 disabled young people, in partnership with ALLFIE and three children’s charities.
Rebecca, one of the young researchers, said: “If more services took account of young disabled people’s views in decision-making we would have better and more effective services.”
Among their recommendations, they want to see disabled young people’s participation placed at the centre of the children and families bill.
7 February 2013