The local authority that has been seen for decades as the most inclusive in England has been accused of delivering a “segregated insult” to disabled people, after backing plans for a new special school for autistic pupils in the borough.
The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) has written to the London Borough of Newham’s 66 councillors to express its “huge disappointment” at the plans.
Connaught Special School, which will open this year on a temporary site before moving to permanent accommodation in 2024, will eventually take more than 100 pupils aged from five to 19.
The school is being set up by the Learning in Harmony Trust, which runs 10 academy schools in London and Essex.
Newham has been found to place the smallest proportion of pupils in segregated settings among councils in England, ever since the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE) started publishing reports in 1988.
CSIE’s latest report (PDF) found Newham placed just two pupils in 1,000 in a special school in 2017, compared with more than 17 in every 1,000 in Torbay.
ALLFIE said the move to open a new segregated school was “ableist and disablist” and would worsen the “marginalization and discrimination” experienced by disabled people in the borough, which “already has a disproportionate population experiencing social and intersectional inequalities”.
It said the decision was a “clear acknowledgment of the Government’s failure to address inclusive education within mainstream settings as a human right”.
In its letter, ALLFIE says Newham “was once the proud leading council in England guiding other Local Authorities and educational institutions on how to make inclusive education within mainstream settings work for all its children and young people”.
ALLFIE told the council it has evidence that shows inclusive education within mainstream settings “does work” when disabled children and young people “are valued, are part of the decision-making process, and are taken seriously by providing the essential supports they require to participate and contribute to their local schools and communities”.
But the letter adds: “We know that segregating children and young people will lead to yet more segregation, exclusion and isolation, reinforcing discrimination across all other areas of life.”
In a statement, ALLFIE’s trustees described the decision to open the new special school in Newham as a “segregated insult”.
They said: “This shift towards deeper segregation, across London in particular and around the UK in general, is one that has been orchestrated by this government over many years.
“It must be challenged and exposed for what it is – part of a systemic rejection of the rights fought for and won by disabled people and their allies over the last 35 years.”
Cllr Joshua Garfield, Newham’s cabinet member for education, skills and lifelong learning, defended the move to open the new special school.
He told Disability News Service (DNS): “We are committed to enabling children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) to learn in inclusive settings, alongside their peers.
“We are still a leader on inclusive education, with fewer specialist places than many other parts of the country, and with more SEND children in mainstream school settings than any other London borough.
“The 2021 joint area inspection [by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission] identified six areas of improvement.
“Among these, inspectors noted that Newham had a shortage of specialist provision to meet the needs of children and young people with the most complex needs.
“We have a legal duty to offer this provision, for which there is a need, and ensure families can opt for in-borough specialist provision, where we can include their child in our Newham-wide enrichment programmes and multi-school activities.
“We want as many children as possible to have a place in the community and close to their support network.
“Championing inclusion and supporting all our schools to offer inclusive education continues to be a big part of this.
“Whilst the new Connaught School will help us meet growing needs, Newham remains extremely committed to, and exceptionally proud of, our inclusive education offer, which continues to attract attention from sector leads both nationally and internationally.
“Our capital bids programme is an example of our continued investment in inclusion, where we have invested £1.5 million creating specialist resource provision in mainstream settings through 28 small grants to Newham schools.
“Our commitment to inclusion is as strong as ever.”
The council said it believed there would be a significant shortage of places for autistic children and young people in the borough over the next three to five years, particularly for those of secondary age and over-16s.
More than 100 autistic children and young people from Newham are currently attending out-of-borough provision.
Between 2018 and 2022, Newham saw an increase in young people with education health and care plans (EHCPs) receiving their education in mainstream schools from 37.4 per cent of children to 63.8 per cent, which the council says is far ahead of the 2021 national figure of 39.9 per cent.
Over the same period, the percentage in specialist schools fell from 23.7 per cent in 2018 to 15.5 per cent in 2022, compared with the 2020 national figure of 35.8 per cent.
Last week, DNS reported that ALLFIE was building a new coalition of allies and supporters who see the fight for inclusive education as a social justice and human rights issue, in a new push for mainstream education for all disabled people and an end to segregation.
It hopes the coalition will draft new legislation on inclusive education and push for it to be introduced in parliament; it is recruiting a new member of staff to help build the coalition, and set up a young disabled people’s parliamentary group.
ALLFIE and its allies are awaiting the government’s response to a consultation on its special educational needs review, which was published 10 months ago.
ALLFIE said last year that the review was “steeped in social injustice and inequality”, omitted any reference to inclusive education as a human right, and was “riddled with biases towards segregated education for disabled children and young people”.
It also warned that key parts of the review were incompatible with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and would likely force some disabled children, particularly those with higher support needs, into segregated education.
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