‘Free’ special schools go-ahead is ‘disaster’, say campaigners


The decision by the government to give the go-ahead for the first three special schools to be set up under its “free schools” programme has caused anger and dismay among campaigners for inclusive education.

Education secretary Michael Gove announced this week that he had approved the opening of special free schools in September 2012 in Southampton, Peterborough and Leeds. A further 17 applications were unsuccessful.

Gove encouraged those that had been unsuccessful to resubmit “even stronger” applications, and said he was “committed to both increasing and improving the provision available to children with special educational needs (SEN)”.

But Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), described news of the three new special schools as “a disaster”.

She said: “It is so counter to what I think the sector wants and what I think disabled children and young people deserve.”

She said the evidence showed that setting up free schools would strip resources from local authorities and existing mainstream schools.

Schools that want to lead on inclusion were already finding it difficult, because of the way learning was measured and resources were allocated, she said.

She added: “That is going to become that much more difficult when the money for SEN is spread across even more education providers.

“The government is taking the position of ‘to hell with disabled children’s and young people’s human rights to inclusive education’, as set out in Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

She said the government’s decision to allow the new special schools to open was “a complete disregard of what is a fundamental human right”.

She added: “It is also the case that the creation of three new ‘free’ special schools, at a time when local authority budgets are already facing decimating cuts, can only make it much worse for parents who want their disabled child to be included in a local mainstream school.”

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.

The three new special schools are Rosewood School in Southampton, for pupils aged two to 19; the City of Peterborough Special Academy, for four to 18-year-olds, which will be built on the same site as a new mainstream academy; and The Lighthouse School in Leeds, for students from 11 to 19.

The veteran disabled activist Micheline Mason, joint organiser of Reverse the Bias, which campaigns against the government’s pledge to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in the education system, said she was “extremely worried” by the announcement.

She said: “Free schools are another component of the relentless drive to support privilege, inequality, and class and disability discrimination, by the right wing.

“They are also a very convenient tool to divide parents and distract them from becoming allies to their children and supporting our struggle for inclusion.”

Meanwhile, a new report shows that children with SEN have made “remarkable progress” under a pilot programme set up under the Labour government.

The Achievement for All programme, which has been running in about 450 schools for the last two years, saw children with SEN make greater progress in English and maths than other children with SEN across the country, while a “significant number” exceeded the progress of children without SEN.

The pilot also narrowed the gap in attainment between children with and without SEN.

Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat children’s minister, said the government would provide £14 million to help fund the roll-out of the programme across England.

The key aim of the programme is to improve attainment in English and maths through “close tracking of progress and intervention”, working to engage families in their children’s learning, and removing barriers such as bullying and emotional problems.

17 November 2011

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