Parliamentary Briefings & Consultation Responses

Submission to the Lenehan Review of Residential Special Schools and Colleges

ALLFIE believes the experience of residential special schools cannot be improved because separation from community and family fundamentally undermines the equality and wellbeing of disabled children and young people and harms society, and that parents are not given real choice to keep their children in mainstream local education.


Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) Submission to the Residential Special Schools Review

The Alliance for Inclusive Education campaigns for disabled students’ and pupils’ rights to inclusive education. We are led by disabled people but our membership also comes from allies, parents, SEND professionals and educational institutions.

Over the past century little has changed; parents want their disabled children to live at home and be part of the family, to be in mainstream education in their local community with necessary support, rather than in residential special schools and colleges.

Disabled Children & Young People and Human Rights

The UK Government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2009 and UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1990. Both highlight the importance of access to family life and of ending the institutionalisation of children. UNCRC Articles 23 and 18 make it clear governments must provide parents with the support required to raise disabled children within their local communities. Article 7 of the UNCRPD requires the ‘best interests of the child to be a primary consideration’. The Lenehan report [1] highlights that current arrangements for some disabled children and young people do not meet this criterion.

Article 24 of the UNCRPD clearly states governments must develop an inclusive education system. ALLFIE believes that despite the Government’s Reservation and Interpretative Declaration, which includes a commitment to building the capacity of mainstream schools, current decision-making violates disabled students’ human rights under both treaties and would be unacceptable if applied to nondisabled children and young people.

“A senior manager reflected on a panel which had been pleased to agree a solution for an 11 year old which involved him living full time in a residential school a long way from home. ‘It can’t be right, can it?’ he said and the answer is no, it can’t. We wouldn’t make that decision for a child without these needs; it would not be seen as acceptable.” (Lenehan 2017)

Residential special education – a lesson from history

ALLFIE’s 2015 “How Was School?” project[2] captured 100 years of disabled peoples’ educational experiences, mostly in residential provision. It demonstrated that whilst the environment and the nature of SEND provision in residential special schools and colleges may have evolved, the impact of segregation and institutionalisation on disabled children and young people remains the same. The experience of institutionalisation cannot be improved because it is founded on the mindset that disabled people are not full members of society. Many of the participants in “How Was School?” have experienced lifelong effects from childhood segregation.

Lenehan (2017) reports systematic failings of residential provision, including residential special schools and colleges, to provide meaningful education and safe care. ALLFIE believes residential special schools and colleges should not be viewed separately from other residential institutionalised settings such as Winterbourne View and St Andrews Special Hospital with the same deficit approach to disabled children and young people. Disabled children and young people in these settings are inevitably, harmfully, disconnected from their families, communities, peer group and positive identity around disability.

How and why these children and young people come to be placed in residential special schools and colleges

Parents do not actively choose residential special schools and colleges. On the contrary research[3] [4] indicates many parents (up to 84%5) want their child to be educated with appropriate support in a local school whilst living at home. NASS research in 2012[5] highlighted that in fact:

Placements are generally made when the placing Local Authority has been unable to meet the needs of the child or young person through their own (local) provision

This experience is supported by Scope[6]:

Families were often forced to make difficult choices, in some instances be apart so that they could receive all the support they needed.”

The threat of institutionalisation is as real today as fifty years ago. Ian, now 69, was sent to a residential special school when very young, whilst Jane’s 11 year old son was threatened with residential special school placement in 2016, despite being successfully included in a mainstream primary:

I had to go to boarding school. I had no say in what was going to happen. Parents do not have a choice. Their rights are dictated by professionals.” (Ian, How Was School 2014)

“We were told that, for children like our son, with severe learning disabilities and non-verbal, inclusion was not “meaningful”, that there were no options and that he would have to go to a special school, even if we didn’t want it. How could a little boy go from living at home with his loving family and attending his local primary school to being sent away to a residential school?” (Jane (not real name), evidence to ALLFIE 2017)

Jane and her family had to go to tribunal to prevent her son’s removal to a residential special school.

Since 2014 the number of residential special school enrolled pupils has increased from 13,059[7] to 17,066[8] (30%) and boarding pupils have increased from 3,185 to 5,195 (63%). More shockingly the Lenehan report highlights that 1129 disabled children and young people are currently in 52 week placements with little chance of returning home.

When the state is paying £120,901[9] to £250,000 (parent, evidence to ALLFIE 2017) per residential special school placement, clearly decisions are not based on cost effectiveness. The Department for Education and local authorities are withholding resources from local services whilst spending vast sums on residential special schools and college placements. Services for disabled children are often planned and commissioned separately from other services and miss strategic opportunities to provide coordinated education, health and care services locally. ALLFIE believes this is also still about the government’s commitment in 2010 to ‘reverse the bias towards inclusion’ under the guise of parental choice – yet families have no choice:

“Miles was settled into a good mainstream school with a well-resourced impaired hearing unit. After the school’s unit closed down as a result of cuts, the parents had to move him three more times from one school to another before settling for a residential special school for deaf children.” (Garner 2013[10])

The local mainstream college is now stating that they have no experience in working with a young person like my daughter and therefore they cannot accommodate her.” [11]

Improving experiences and outcomes

Residential special schools and colleges still exist because they provide a solution to LAs struggling with the disabled children and young people least able to fit into a society which resists inclusion; sending these children out of area makes the ‘problem’ disappear. Residential special schools and colleges claim they can meet these children’s needs because they provide safe and appropriate environments. ALLFIE’s How Was School? Project tells a very different story.

Educational professionals with concerns about an education system focussed on a deficit model of disability talk about the indiscriminate lumping together by diagnosis of disabled children and young people:

I sat on a panel where the young person had been diagnosed by the local CAMHS team as having ‘bipolar disorder’. The panel’s problem-solving dialogue amounted to little more than: ‘Where do we know that takes bipolars?!” (educational psychologist, evidence to ALLFIE 2017)

And there is no guarantee that pupils will actually receive education and support that meets their needs.

My parents were told things would be better at the Deaf school. I wasn’t allowed to sign and found it impossible to lip read the teacher. My education really suffered.” (evidence to ALLFIE, 2014)

“How Was School?” is full of accounts from disabled adults who were institutionalised in residential special schools and colleges, often when very young and for most of their childhood. Usually the experience was negative with little focus on education whilst significant attention was given to normalisation. Everyone talked about the separation from family and community and the cruelty of methods supposed to make disabled children and young people independent.

“this one poor girl, they wanted her to pick up the cup and drink without a straw… she’d get it half-way to her mouth and then for some reason, she’d go into spasm so obviously it went all over her… and obviously they’d shout at her… Instead of changing her, she’d have to stay in it all. Gradually she stopped drinking and what do you think happened?” (Angela, How Was School? 2014)

ALLFIE has worked with many describing themselves as special school survivors whose accounts of segregation and often abuse and mistreatment on the same scale as Winterbourne View have been ignored by government and the providers and commissioners of these services. However the police, CQC and the media are beginning to investigate a number of cases, some historic and some not[12]. Claims that abuse and mistreatment in residential special schools and colleges would not happen now because of improved safeguarding are naive at best.


Residential special schools and colleges commonly promote themselves to parents/commissioners on their ability to prepare young people for adult independent living[13]. Abbott4 and Heslop16 found that most former residential special schools and college students with learning difficulties moved into other residential college or care provision, not back into their own communities. Claims that residential special schools and colleges prepare disabled young people for independence and work are not substantiated.

Residential special school places are scrutinised closely – evidence here is that children return to family homes ill-prepared for life within their local community and knowing few people – as you will anticipate.” (Anne Matthews, Principal Educational Psychologist (personal capacity), evidence to ALLFIE 2017)

This reflects evidence from up to 50 years ago.

I had a huge culture shock! When I entered the hearing world, I felt so isolated and invisible amongst all the hustle and bustle of the outside world – no one prepared me for it.” (Phillip, How Was School? 2014)

“Cast out into a real world where you’d had no experience at all in handling any of it.” (Sue, How Was School? 2014)

Once back in the community, feelings of exclusion resulting from institutionalisation have substantially affected disabled people’s emotional wellbeing. Lenehan (2017) found many disabled young people’s admissions into psychiatric inpatient care often came directly from previous residential placements including those from residential special schools and colleges.

I came home, [my family] couldn’t fit back in around me and I felt ashamed and two summers in a row I had overdosed and I ended up in hospital…” (Angela, How Was School 2014)

Children learn about inclusion and segregation from school. The effects of segregation cannot be underestimated, as highlighted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry into disability hate crime:

The Commission believes that setting may also be important and that separating disabled children from their peers at an early stage may have a long-term impact.” (EHRC 2012)

In conclusion

ALLFIE sees no role for residential special schools and colleges today, a vision shared by the global community through the UNCRPD, as well as General Comment No.4[14].

“Inclusive education is central to achieving high quality education for all learners, including those with disabilities, and for the development of inclusive, peaceful and fair societies.” (Gen Comm No.4 2016)

Residential special schools and colleges cannot be part of a truly inclusive education system because of their premise that some children are too difficult/complex/profound/multiply-impaired to be part of the mainstream world, a myth mainstream providers also propound.

ALLFIE believes their existence violates disabled children and young people’s human rights to inclusive education and to fulfil their potential and that the segregation of children and young people who don’t fit in should be consigned to the last century. We need to create the alternative – a fully inclusive education system as set out in the UNCRPD. Courage is needed to find a new vision for what is possible and make it happen.

Tara Flood, Director                         Simone Aspis, Campaigns & Policy Co-ordinator                 simone/

Alliance for Inclusive Education, 336 Brixton Road, London, SW9 7AA
Tel: 020 7737 6030, Website:


[1] Lenehan, Christine (2017), “These Are Our Children”. (CDC/DOH)

[2] 2015

[3] Abbott, D, Morris, J and Ward, L (2001), Residential schools and disabled children: decision making and experiences. Joseph Rowntree Foundation

[4] Office of the Children’s Commissioner (2014), The views and experiences of children in residential special schools: overview report.

[5] NASS (2012), Education Committee – Pre-legislative scrutiny: Special Educational Needs. Written evidence

[6] Brawn, E and Rogers, C (2012), Keep us close: Ensuring good, inclusive and accessible local services for disabled children and their families. Scope


[7] Children’s Rights Alliance for England (2014), State Of Children’s Rights In England; Review of Government action on United Nations’ recommendations for strengthening children’s rights in the UK

[8] DFE FOI response Feb 2017

[9] Baker Tilly (2012), Summary of Findings: Extension of the 2011 Cost Comparison Methodology to A Wider Sample. NASS

[10] Garner, R (2013), Deaf children ‘are forced to move house due to budget cuts’ Baker Tilly (2012), Summary of Findings: Extension of the 2011 Cost Comparison Methodology to A Wider Sample. NASS

[11]Melanie, ALLFIE blog 2013


[13] Heslop P (2008) Where Next? Transition Pathways for Young People with Learning Difficulties in U.K. Residential Schools and Colleges