Inclusion Now 48

A “Human catastrophe”: UN critical of UK government approach to disabled people

For the last few years it has felt at times like we have been bashing our heads against a very strong and hostile government brick wall determined to drown out the voice of the inclusive education movement, with government rhetoric about parental “choice” and raising academic standards.

And then, only last month, we discover that the world has been listening and better than that – has seen through the nonsense spouted by this government in the name of austerity and greater autonomy for education providers.

In August a group of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), including ALLFIE, went to Geneva to listen to the UK government being interrogated by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – six hours of questioning split over two days.

This is the first time that the UK government has been scrutinised by the UNCPRD Committee since ratifying the convention in 2009 so it is an important benchmark for the future. Any government that ratifies a UN human rights treaty is then regularly scrutinised by the related committee to review implementation of that treaty.

During the scrutiny session the UK government claimed to be a ‘world leader in disability issues’ which was challenged by a number of the committee members. Most government departments were represented in Geneva, including the Department for Education (DfE), which was important because the committee asked lots of questions related to Article 24: Right to Inclusive Education.

To date the government has produced no evidence to show how it is meeting its Article 24 obligations to build a fully inclusive education system. In truth the government has done everything that it can to reverse any progress towards inclusive education. The government’s own statistics show that the numbers of disabled pupils and students with Special Educational Needs in mainstream education have declined year on year since ratification. Bizarrely, when questioned about the decline in the numbers of disabled pupils in mainstream, DfE reps claimed that 98.6% of disabled pupils and students are included in mainstream education (we have since submitted a Freedom of Information request for a breakdown of this figure).

The UNCRPD Committee published its Concluding Observations document a week after the scrutiny and it is damning of the government’s track record on human rights – not just on education and Disabled children but across all issues. The key issues relating to Article 24 include:

  • The persistence of a dual education system that segregates children with disabilities to special schools, including based on parental choice;
  • The increase in the number of children with disabilities in segregated education environments;
  • The education system is not geared to respond to the requirement for high-quality inclusive education; in particular the practice of school authorities declining to enrol students with disabilities who are deemed ‘disruptive to other classmates’; and
  • Education and training of teachers in inclusion competences does not reflect the requirement for inclusive education.

In many of the DfE’s responses to Article 24 questions, parental choice was used as a defence to the government’s non-compliance with the convention, that special schools exist because ‘that’s what parents want’ – not a single mention of the cuts to local SEND support services or disincentives in the education system that discourage mainstream schools from admitting disabled pupils or the extra government money being ploughed into segregated provision. Thankfully this was picked up by the Chair of the Committee, Theresia Degener, who stated that ‘inclusive education is not a choice, it is a human right’.

The Committee also highlighted real concerns about the lack of progress on Article 7: Disabled children, and in particular the government’s failure to address the high levels of bullying of disabled children and young people.

ALLFIE has taken a lead on both these articles both in preparing for the scrutiny sessions and also the drafting of the ROFA (Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance) Shadow Report earlier this year. We also prepared a briefing for those committee members who have an interest in education issues. This was a good move because the committee members from Hungary, Lithuania and Russia used questions suggested by ALLFIE during the scrutiny sessions.

The Concluding Observations document is full of incredibly helpful recommendations. We are really pleased to see that the UN Committee have taken particular issue with the increasing segregation of disabled children and young people and so many of the recommendations are linked to this issue. For example Recommendation 53(a) states that the government must:

“Develop a comprehensive and coordinated legislative and policy framework for inclusive education, and a timeframe to ensure that mainstream schools foster real inclusion of children with disabilities in the school environment and teachers and all other professionals and persons in contact with children understand the concept of inclusion and are able to enhance inclusive education.”

The Concluding Observations don’t pull any punches when it comes to highlighting the numerous and systematic breaches of the convention. The examination was declared by the UK rapporteur Mr Stig Langvad, to be “the most challenging exercise in the history of the committee”. Mr Langvad raised deep concerns about the UK government’s failure to implement the rights of disabled people in all areas. This was also highlighted by Ms Degener’s concluding remarks on the second day of the scrutiny, when she described the government’s current approach to disabled people as causing “a human catastrophe”.

During the scrutiny session committee members repeatedly highlighted the huge amount of evidence they had received from Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) – over 2000 pages showing the scale of the government’s disregard for the convention and disabled people’s human rights in general. DPOs were hailed as the genuine ‘world leaders’ for their efforts in bringing to light the injustices and human rights violations inflicted on disabled people in the UK.

And so what now? We have an incredibly useful campaigning document in the Concluding Observations both in the strength and clarity of the recommendations and also the clear requirement for government to find more effective ways to work with organisations like ALLFIE to realise the human rights set out in the convention.

Our work now is to focus on challenging the government to take its convention obligations seriously, particularly Article 24. For ALLFIE our campaign work continues but with renewed energy and now with the force of the world alongside us!

The Concluding Observations are here.

Tara Flood