Disabled campaigners have spoken outside the high court of the “shocking” and “shameful” impact of the government’s austerity policies on the education of disabled children, as they supported a high-profile legal action.
Three families with disabled children are this week asking the high court to declare that the government has acted unlawfully by failing to provide enough funding for local authorities to meet their legal obligations to educate children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
The families – supported by the SEND Action campaign network – want chancellor Philip Hammond and education secretary Damian Hinds to increase funding to local councils.
All three of the families have been unable to secure the support their disabled child needs with their education.
It is believed to be the first time the government has been taken to court over the level of SEND funding.
Before the first of the two days of hearings yesterday (Wednesday), parents, charities and disabled people and their user-led organisations – including The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) and Inclusion London – spoke of how disabled children were being failed by the government.
Among them was the disabled academic Professor Tom Shakespeare, who told campaigners: “We are the people your children will grow up to be.
“Our parents have fought for us to have an education as disabled people.
“We want your children to have those same chances.”
He spoke of the widespread – and illegal – practice of “off-rolling”, in which mainstream schools force pupils off their rolls to boost their academic results, which means that “thousands of disabled children are denied the education that is their human right”.
He said: “It can be done differently. Go to Finland. Modern countries do well by disabled children and respect their SEN teachers and include [disabled] children in the mainstream.
“It’s not much. It’s human rights.”
He told Disability News Service (DNS) later that parents of disabled children were “doing the right thing” and “standing up for their children” and were “organising in all parts of the country”.
He said of the problems facing disabled children in securing their education: “I feel very emotional about it. It’s a shocking thing.”
He said that if disabled children do not receive the education they need “they are not going to be able to end up as adults who can stand up for their rights and be included in society”.
He added: “It’s shocking, hidden, insidious, and it’s destroying our children’s future.”
Michelle Daley, ALLFIE’s interim director, told DNS that she and her colleagues were outside the court to show their solidarity with the three families and highlight both the cuts to SEND funding and also how resources were being taken from mainstream schools and invested instead in segregated special schools.
She said the government’s actions were “putting a price tag on disabled children’s right to go to school” and were ignoring their right to be in local, mainstream schools alongside their neighbours, friends and family.
Daley said the legal case was, for ALLFIE, also about the need to recognise that the government was breaching its duties under article 24 (on inclusive education) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Two years ago, the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities raised concerns about the increasing number of disabled children being educated in segregated settings and said the UK education system was “not equipped to respond to the requirements for high-quality inclusive education”.
Daley said: “I am hopeful that, regardless of the outcome, the fact that people are here and families and disabled children have managed to get it to the high court demonstrates that people are not happy and people want the right for their children to access mainstream education.”
She told campaigners later (pictured): “It is disgusting that disabled children are having to take the government to court just for the right to have access to education.
“What’s disgusting for ALLFIE is that when I was going to school, our parents had to fight for the same rights as our disabled children are having to fight for today.
“This is wrong, this is against disabled children’s human rights.”
She said it was an “embarrassment and shame” for the government that it was being taken to court by parents “to fight for things that are a right”.
More than 40,000 people have signed an ALLFIE petition calling on the government not to shut disabled people out of mainstream education, and to increase SEND funding.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, told DNS: “This government is failing our disabled children, creating a lost and invisible generation of disabled children who have been shut out of education or left in schools deprived of the support they need.
“It is a scandal in the fifth richest country in the world.
“This is one of the more shameful examples of the disproportionate impact of austerity on disabled people.
“This government has to acknowledge the damage it is doing to our country and start working with us to get our equality and inclusion back on track.
“They could start by committing to article 24 of UNCRPD.”
Only two days earlier, Labour’s shadow housing minister Sarah Jones had told MPs that a survey of headteachers in Croydon had shown that 85 per cent of them had been forced to cut their SEN provision.
Labour’s Debbie Abrahams added: “The £1.2 billion shortfall in SEND funding means that children with an education, health and care plan may be refused a local place because schools cannot afford to provide the support that these children need.”
Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi told MPs: “There are clearly funding pressures on the system, which is why we have announced £250 million in additional funding to take the funding to £6.3 billion.
“We are in the middle of a spending review and I will be putting my best foot forward to make sure that we get the funding in place.”
A Department for Education spokesperson added yesterday, in response to the court case: “The government’s ambition for children with special educational needs and disabilities is no different to any other child – we want them to enjoy school and achieve to their full potential.
“This is why we are investing significant funding into supporting those with more complex special educational needs – high needs funding totaling £6.3 billion this year.
“It would be inappropriate to comment further until the judicial process has concluded.”
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