Fifty years of Disabled children and young people being used as pawns in an ideological battle
By Linda Jordan, Teacher and Parent
As we wait for the Government’s response to the crisis facing Disabled children and young people in the education system, it is difficult not to reflect on the history of this system.
Ever since the 1970s when Disabled children were finally allowed to have an education and comprehensive secondary schools replaced the tripartite, selective system, the debate about so-called special education has raged. Throughout these fifty years, Disabled children and young people have been pawns in an ideological battle. The arguments for an inclusive education system are based on the human rights of all children to grow up in real environments where they learn and live together, understand and celebrate difference and realise that everyone has gifts and talents that should be equally respected. Those who argue for segregation say that Disabled children “need” things that are not available in ordinary schools or that it is unfair for non-disabled children to have their education disrupted by Disabled children.
The current conversations about this topic are so familiar to those of us who have been around throughout. The arguments are the same, the problems are the same and unfortunately the proposed solutions have remained the same. Hopefully one day a government will realise that keep doing the same leads to the same consequences. Will the awaited report give us new solutions?
The 1981 Act was greeted with enormous relief by Disabled people, parents of Disabled children and all those committed to comprehensive education for all. The Act set up a system which would bring Disabled children properly into the education system and it promoted inclusion. For the following two decades the number of children attending segregated schools slowly fell and many local areas across the country were working out how to support schools to include all children. But even during this time, the opponents of inclusion continued to argue against and prevented us having a proper mainstream inclusive education national strategy.
By 1996 it had been decided that the 1981 Act was not working and a Code of Practice was published. By 2000 another Code was necessary because the system was still not working and by 2006 The Parliamentary Education Select Committee wrote an extensive report concluding that the system was not working and that there needed to be an extensive review. Interestingly, the Government’s response was that a review was not necessary but that the law and best practice needed to be implemented nationally. This response included the observations that:
- Pupils with even the most severe and complex needs are able to make outstanding progress in all types of settings
- Mainstream schools with additionally resourced provision are particularly successful in achieving high outcomes for pupils academically, socially and personally
- There is a mistaken view that local authority reorganisations involving special school closures mean an inevitable loss of specialist support and fewer good quality choices when in fact they
try to develop a range of provision to meet changing needs. There is a need for improvements in training, access to specialist support, better use of data by schools to promote children’s progress, stronger collaboration between mainstream and special schools and better multi- agency working.
However, by 2011, the new Government published a consultation Green Paper ‘Support and Aspiration’ that recognised:
- Successive reports, such as the 2006 report of the Education Select Committee and Brian Lamb’s report in 2009, have described a system where parents feel they have to battle for the support they need, where they are passed from pillar to post, and where bureaucracy and frustration face them at every step
- We are letting these children and young people down. The case for change is clear.
Following this consultation, new legislation was introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of practice 2015. However, in 2019, the Parliamentary Education Select Committee once again reported that:
- In 2014, Parliament legislated with the intention of transforming the educational experiences of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. The reforms were ambitious: the Children and Families Bill sought to place young people at the heart of the system. However, as we set out in this report, that ambition remains to be realised. Let down by failures of implementation, the 2014 reforms have resulted in confusion and at times unlawful practice, bureaucratic nightmares, buck-passing and a lack of accountability, strained resources and adversarial experiences, and ultimately dashed the hopes of many.
The Government response to the 2019 Select Committee report was to publish a consultative Green paper in 2022 which acknowledged that:
- Despite examples of good practice in implementing the 2014 reforms, this is not the norm and too often the experiences and outcomes of children and young people are poor. There are growing pressures across the system that is increasingly characterised by delays in accessing support for children and young people, frustration for parents, carers, and providers alike, and increasing financial pressure for local government.
The responses to this consultation have been analysed and an Improvement Plan will be published. The solution will not be more of the same – a focus on bureaucracy, timescales, building more special schools and lots of fine words. Instead, we need to bite the bullet!
We need a national inclusion strategy.
In law, every child can go to their local mainstream school if that is theirs (from age 16) or their parents’ choice. And the Equality Act requires schools to eliminate discrimination and promote equality. This surely means that every school should be able to include any child living in their community. For this to become a reality, we need to make sure that everyone working in schools has the confidence to do this.
Leaders in schools must examine their moral codes and decide whether it is ok to not welcome children who live nearby and whose brothers, sisters and neighbourhood friends come to the school. Initial teacher training needs to radically change. Understanding how children and young people learn, the range of challenges they face and the evidence of what works should be the fundamental purpose of teacher training.
Teachers now report a lack of confidence and are under pressure to achieve the right number of grades rather than experiencing the joy of all children loving learning and growing into rounded individuals with gifts and talents to contribute to their communities and society now and in the future. Alongside initial teacher training we need every local area to deliver a programme of continuing professional development for everyone working in schools.
To achieve this, local authorities need the money to be able to have learning and behaviour support services that support schools to include all children. And all schools must be accountable for their behaviour towards Disabled children, young people and their families through local area quality assurance approaches and Ofsted inspections. There are schools all around the country that are proudly inclusive and welcome all children living in their communities. This has been the case for decades and these schools have demonstrated that it is possible to include children with complex autism and profound and multiple learning difficulties and to also be among the 20% highest performing schools in the country. Inclusive schools have come under pressure during recent years as schools around them refuse to take children and parents clamour for the schools with good reputations.
More and more children are being placed in special schools, often against theirs and their parents’ wishes but with no alternative. Parents regularly say they don’t want their child going to a school that doesn’t want them. Inclusive schools would be happy to be part of a national strategy to support all schools to be inclusive. Special schools also need to be part of the strategy. They need to work in partnership with mainstream schools to share their expertise. This idea has been put forward in many of the reports mentioned in this article. We need to work out why this has not been successful.
Inclusive education is good for everyone. My daughter was married last year. Her seven bridesmaids included three women she met at primary, secondary school and college. She is 40 and people of her generation who went to school in inclusive local authorities, disability is normal. They experienced going to school with peers who had all sorts of support needs.
As a result, my daughter has had a social life, jobs, an acting career, friends, boyfriends, holidays, her own flat and now a husband. She went to high performing schools and was taught largely in mixed ability classes by confident, well trained and happy teachers who were proud to have her as a student. Based on the experiences of parents, Disabled people, teachers and teaching assistants I meet, this would not happen for my daughter now. If she were lucky enough to be accepted by a mainstream school, she would be in a separate room most of the time in school, with other children with labels and they would be supervised by teaching assistants with little oversight by teachers. It is frightening that children and young people will now be denied the opportunities my daughter had. The rationale seems to be that it is not right for children to be in classrooms if they are not doing the same as everyone else.
As a teacher myself, this notion is completely absurd. I really believe that it is every child’s right to learn with their peers, to experience generational norms, to be part of friendship groups and to get an education that enables them to find their passions, to be the best they can be and to go out into the big wide world knowing they can make a valuable contribution. If children spend their time with children like them, they are not learning about the real world.
For those worried that having Disabled children in mainstream classrooms impacts on results, attainment and achievement it would be wise for them to examine the facts. A common stated reason for not including Disabled children is that it is expensive and yet segregation is more expensive. The National Audit Office has recently pointed to the increased number of children being placed in special schools as the main reason for the overspend in special needs funding.
After fifty years of going round in circles, including fifteen years of inclusion becoming a possibility for many more Disabled children from 1986, we have gone backwards to a time when its acceptable for schools to say they don’t want certain children and for many children to spend months and sometimes years, out of school waiting for a suitable school to be found (all of which is unlawful). With an increasing system of “alternative provision” we seem to have accepted that our schools are not fit for purpose for many children and have created an inferior version of secondary modern schools. This is outside of any policy change and has happened without any formal debate through our democratic processes.
In years to come, once we finally have inclusive schools, we will look back at this time and be shocked at how Disabled children, young people and their families were treated in the English education system. I sincerely hope that will be in my lifetime, but I fear it may be later.