Strict new guidance published by the United Nations has increased pressure on the UK government to abandon its opposition to an inclusive education system, say campaigners.
The guidance, published by the committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD), makes it clear that all segregated education should end, and be replaced by “inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate supports”.
The guidance is published through what is known as a “general comment”, and says that the right for disabled students not to be discriminated against “includes the right not to be segregated”.
And it points out that countries that have signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) have “a specific and continuing obligation” to move as quickly as possible towards “the full realization” of article 24 of the convention, which describes the right of disabled people to an inclusive education system.
The general comment makes it clear that moving towards “full realization” is “not compatible with sustaining two systems of education: mainstream and special/segregated education systems”.
This contrasts with the position of the Conservative party, which in its 2010 general election manifesto pledged to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools”, and five years later boasted in its 2015 manifesto of how it had “created 2,200 more special schools places through our free schools programme”.
The last Labour government placed an “interpretive declaration” against article 24 when it ratified the convention in 2009, explaining that the UK believed the convention allowed it to continue to operate both mainstream and special schools.
It also placed a “reservation” against article 24, reserving the right for disabled children to be educated outside their local community.
Tara Flood (pictured), chief executive of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said the general comment “could not be clearer” that segregated education had to end.
She said the general comment was “embarrassing” for the UK government, which was holding onto a vision of the past “where it was perfectly acceptable to just shut disabled young people away”.
She said: “At a time when things are bleak, the general comment has been such a fantastic boost.
“It is a global document that states very clearly that inclusive education is not only the right thing, but that it is possible. We are very excited about it.”
She said the UK government was in breach of its own interpretive declaration, which commits to developing “an inclusive system where parents of disabled children have increasing access to mainstream schools and staff”.
She said: “Since 2010, it has acted against not only the whole spirit and tone of article 24, but its own interpretive declaration.
“It has done nothing to increase the capacity of mainstream schools; the reverse is true.
“It has done everything to build the capacity of special schools and to discourage mainstream schools from developing inclusive practice.”
She added: “The UK government is now completely out of step with the rest of the world. It is now breaching its obligations much more severely than before.”
But she stressed that there were some schools and colleges that were “doing their best to tread a different path, one more in tune with the convention and the global commitment to inclusive education in what is an increasingly difficult climate”.
Flood said that “ALLFIE, disabled people and parents and everyone else who understand the benefits of inclusive education now need to come together and really ramp up the pressure” on the UK government.
Jonathan Bartley, the newly-elected co-leader of the Green party, and a leading inclusive education campaigner, also welcomed the “emphatic” and “absolutely wonderful” UN guidance.
He said the UK government’s policies to create more special school places were being carried out “under the guise of choice, but more and more parents are not experiencing that choice but are being pushed into segregated education”.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We are committed to developing an inclusive education system in which mainstream schools have the capacity to meet the needs of disabled children.
“However, we are clear that disabled children should have the right to go to the school which is best suited to their needs – whether this is mainstream or specialist.
“Our schooling system includes both mainstream and special schools, which is allowed under the convention.”
She said the government had no plans to change the UK’s reservation and interpretive declaration.
And she said that the Children and Families Act 2014 “secures the general presumption in law of mainstream education in relation to decisions about where children and young people with special educational needs should be educated and the Equality Act 2010 provides protection from discrimination for disabled people”.
But she added: “For some children with complex disabilities the most appropriate provision is provided by specialist residential educational establishments, non-maintained special schools or independent schools.”
Asked for the committee’s views on the UK government’s position, Jorge Araya, secretary of the committee, said: “The committee will review the implementation of the convention [in the UK] in a date which will be officially informed to [the UK] when the committee so decides, and to the public at large through the committee’s webpage.”
Maria Soledad Cisternas Reyes, the committee’s chair, had earlier said in a statement on the general comment: “Inclusive education is important not only for persons with disabilities but the societies they live in, as it helps to combat discrimination, and to promote diversity and participation.”
Cisternas Reyes added: “Enabling inclusive education requires an in-depth transformation of education systems in legislation, policy and the way education is financed, administered, designed, taught and monitored.”