Campaigners are “deeply concerned” that the launch of a new parliamentary inquiry into the educational support provided for disabled children and young people failed to mention inclusive education.
The inquiry by the Commons education select committee will investigate the impact of major reforms to the special educational needs and disability (SEND) system that were introduced four years ago through the Children and Families Act.
But The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) says the announcement of the committee’s inquiry – headed by disabled Tory MP and former education minister Robert Halfon (pictured, left) – made no mention of inclusive education.
ALLFIE linked this with the Conservative party’s long-standing commitment to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools”.
In 2015, a year after the act was passed, the party boasted in its 2015 general election manifesto of how it had “created 2,200 more special schools places through our free schools programme”.
Tara Flood, ALLFIE’s director, said she was “deeply concerned, frustrated and angry” at the failure to mention inclusive education in the inquiry launch, which she said was not an accident or “ignorance” but a deliberate attempt to “avoid the issue”.
She said: “It is disingenuous of Halfon to have side-stepped the issue.”
She said the government was called out on its lack of progress on inclusive education last August by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD), so the failure to mention inclusion was “not about ignorance, it is about actively avoiding the issue”.
Flood said the Children and Families Act was part of a “perfect storm” of measures that were harming inclusive education, which included “hugely damaging cuts to local authority SEND support services”, and an increase in the powers of schools to exclude pupils.
She said: “This is a perfect storm of policy and law dealing with the government’s ideological position of reversing the bias towards inclusive education.”
She said it was “absolutely extraordinary” that the education committee had made no reference to the concluding observations made by the CRPD last year after it had examined the UK government’s implementation of the UN disability convention.
CRPD was highly critical of the UK government’s approach to inclusive education, and the “persistence of a dual education system” that segregates increasing numbers of disabled children in special schools.
CRPD called instead for a “coherent strategy” on “increasing and improving inclusive education”, which would include raising awareness of – and support for – inclusive education among parents of disabled children.
The government has a commitment to build the capacity of mainstream schools to educate disabled children through the UN convention, said Flood.
She said ALLFIE will be making these points to the committee “in the strongest terms”.
One of the areas the education committee’s inquiry will examine is the act’s replacement of statements of special educational needs with new education, health and care plans (EHCPs), which last from birth to the age of 25 and set out all the support a family should receive.
Local authorities in England had until this month to move all disabled children eligible for support from special educational needs (SEN) statements to new EHCPs.
But Labour warned in last year’s general election manifesto for disabled people that the EHCP assessments were “being used to restrict access to support” for disabled children and young people.
And in December, the education watchdog Ofsted warned that some parents were being asked to educate their disabled children at home because their schools were claiming they could not meet their needs.
That report said that the proportion of pupils with an SEN statement or an EHCP attending a state-funded special school, rather than mainstream provision, had risen from 40 per cent in 2010 to 45 per cent of pupils.
After the act’s introduction, ALLFIE warned that it had “thrown open a whole new door to segregation” because it weakened disabled children’s right to inclusion in a mainstream school.
The education select committee will also investigate the level of funding for SEND.
After the act was passed in 2014, the National Union of Teachers warned that the new SEND measures were “simply a cover for cost-cutting”.
The inquiry will also look at how well the education, health and social care sectors have been co-operating.
The education committee said the intention of the Children and Families Act had been to offer simpler, improved and consistent help for children and young people with SEND, while the government claimed the changes would give families greater choice in decisions.
But the committee now wants to review the success of those reforms, how they have been implemented, and the impact they are having on disabled children and young people.
Halfon said: “It has been four years since major SEND reforms were introduced and it’s important we examine whether the government’s stated ambitions for simpler, improved and consistent help for children and young people with SEND have been met.
“There are rising concerns about the quality and access to SEN provision which the committee… will want to explore in this inquiry.
“The committee’s current inquiry into alternative provision has heard considerable evidence that children with special educational needs are disproportionately excluded from school and over-represented in alternative provision.
“During the course of our quality of apprenticeships and skills training inquiry we’ve also heard that with young people with SEN have faced significant barriers in accessing apprenticeships.”
He added: “The 2014 act extended provision to young people up to the age of 25 and the committee is particularly keen to hear evidence about whether there is the right support available to enable young people to access appropriate post-18 opportunities such as studying at further education colleges and undertaking apprenticeships.”
The deadline for submitting evidence to the inquiry is 14 June.