The rise, then fall, of Disabled children’s rights during the past ten years of Conservative Governments
By Joe Whittaker, ALLFIE Trustee
The many struggles for Inclusive Education (IE) have been recorded by Disabled Peoples Organisations, most notably ALLFIE and allies such as the Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education (CSIE), with Alison Wertheimer detailing national and international thinking about IE.
The shifts away from the damaging segregation of Disabled children in isolated settings onto a path of IE with the prospect for a greater diversity of friendships and imaginative learning opportunities was a key debate throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. The campaigns to create IE, had benefits for all learners which included:
- Pupil Centred Learning
- Team Teaching
- Teachers with different approaches to Teaching and Learning
- Introduction of senior staff to coordinate support around the school (SENCO)
- Stories of Disabled and non-Disabled students learning about each other for the first time
- Thousands of Teaching Assistants introduced to support Individual Learning Plans
- Different ways of assessing learning from a greater diversity of students
- Subject differentiation introduced to reach more students
- British Sign Language (BSL) as a second language for all to study
- Schools made physically accessible for Disabled people, Children, Teachers and Visitors
- Circles of Support
- Growth of Data and Materials celebrating the benefits to all from IE
- Disability History Month
The above and many more initiatives evolved from the struggles to make learning more accessible and more inclusive. However, the most significant shift was that Disabled children were not seeking permission to be included, it was their fundamental human right to be a part of their local schools and communities.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD 2007) was the culmination of those struggles – inclusion was now a Human Rights issue. This was a global message, contained in a document of fifty Articles, covering all areas of Human Rights for Disabled people to participate and contribute, on an equal basis as others, in their communities around the world. A key article of the convention and its interconnection with all other articles, for ALLFIE, was Article 24 – The RIGHT TO Inclusive Education.
Disabled People were instrumental in creating the language of this convention and pushing for IE as a Human Rights issue, Tara Flood, ALLFIE Director at that time, said:
“There was something really exciting about being at the UN, during the discussions to create the UNCRPD because for the first time in the history of the UN, non-governmental organisations were at the heart of shaping the convention text. For me, what was important was that the majority of NGO representatives were Disabled people, truly ‘nothing about us without us’. I went to New York representing ALLFIE and so my focus was securing a strong commitment to inclusive education in Article 24. This wasn’t easy because there were the usual arguments for ‘choice of education setting’, which as we know opens the door for segregated provision. However working alongside Richard Rieser (World of Inclusion) and Belinda Shaw (CSIE), we convinced government and NGO reps to support inclusive education as a human rights issue and therefore the aspiration of inclusive education for all Disabled pupils and students – an amazing achievement.”
ALLFIE was taking a key role in writing and making IE history. The UNCRPD made it clear that discriminations against Disabled people in the Institutions and Statutory Services should end. There was a recognition for those inside and outside of the Inclusion Movement we had reached a landmark based upon a solid foundation of Human Rights.
But then in came the Cameron Government in 2010. They quickly introduced a policy of ‘Ending the bias towards Inclusive Education.’ This policy was based upon a false assumption, that every Disabled child had the opportunity to enjoy IE and the Government wanted to strengthen ‘a choice agenda’ which as Flood suggested, was the ‘Trojan Horse’ to continue segregation.
The legislation to end discrimination and uphold Human Rights was not an overnight event, this was the time when the aspirations for IE had to be established as structural changes in the Schooling System, which would be a long journey. Richard Reiser, in 2011 asserted another reason the Government wanted to ‘end the bias towards Inclusive Education’
Inclusive approaches require transparency. Rieser’s assertion was correct, the Conservative Government intended to disguise their main aim, which was to increase the ‘marketplace’ in the schooling system. It is now obvious the Government have taken steps to undermine the rights of Disabled children whilst at the same increasing their attraction to a segregated ‘special’ economy.
How much will local authorities pay to private companies and charities to transport and segregate Disabled children from their homes and communities? It’s not the cost per child that is the concern, but the way Disabled children are packaged as a commodity. The more “complex” we construct and label a Disabled child, the deeper the segregation can be for that child and the higher the price on their head, paid by the local authority to a private company or charity, for private gain. If funding was available to create appropriate supports, where the Disabled child is the focus, accessing services in their local communities, the opportunities available could be transformed out of isolation into inclusion.
Statutory services cannot be an “event” done at an individual. Service has to be provided consistently and reliably from highly valued and well supported people, who are being guided by the Disabled person they are there to serve, it’s a reciprocal relationship. In 2011, the same Cameron Government set about removing Legal Aid, the significance of which will become apparent as we follow the undermining of Disabled children’s rights.
Increase in complaints
In the last five years Disabled children have increasingly been subjected to unlawful assaults from the Statutory Services, this is reflected in a soar of parental complaints to the Statutory Authorities, and the number of those complaints that have been upheld by independent bodies. Parents with children on Education and Health Care Plans (EHCP) were disproportionately assaulted.
This 90% increase in complaints from parents is likely to be the tip of an iceberg. If we were to include those parents who were justified in making a complaint but did not have the time, skills or support to follow a complaints procedure the figure is likely to be even higher. Often complaints procedures can be an ‘internal mechanism’ used to distract and exhaust an already busy parent.
With such an increase in complaints some professionals and official responses were to simply to “blame the parents” adding insult to injury. Special Needs Jungle provide details of this increasingly common practice.
‘Off Rolling’ Disabled Learners
Another disturbing assault on Disabled children, which has increased in recent years. Ofsted (the Governments own Inspectorate of Standards Service) reported the practice of ‘off rolling’, where unknown numbers of children have been removed from the School Registers without explanation. These numbers disproportionately affected Disabled children. This practice reflects significant numbers of Headteachers and Local Authorities who are breaking the law.
Examples include parents called into school by the Headteacher, sometimes with a Local Authority Officer present, and told that the school ‘cannot cope’ with your child because he had a ‘melt down’. The parent was then given ‘options’ – their Disabled child could go to a segregated special school, 35 miles away from home, or the parent could ‘home school’. This tactic to remove the child from school is unlawful.
The practice of ‘off rolling’ was raised as a concern by Ofsted in 2017, indicating children had been lost in the system, without explanation. Ofsted refused to name the schools:
“We have identified around 300 schools with ‘exceptional levels’ of pupils coming off-roll between Years 10 and 11. We know that the most vulnerable children are more likely to be excluded or off-rolled.”
Ofsted annual reports
A few years later Ofsted still have concerns, but their language is somewhat more cautious, even when they acknowledge ‘loopholes’ that could be unlawful.
“There is also a need to reform alternative provision (AP), removing the loopholes that allow so much of it to avoid regulation and oversight. We need to go deeper into the reasons why so many children sent to AP never return to mainstream schools. We need a better understanding of what happens to the children who are removed from school.”
Ofsted annual report 2020/21
It is clear in the last 12 years the UK Conservative Government has failed to uphold the rights of Disabled children as illustrated with the assaults described above.
In addition, the Government refused to endorse Article 24 of the UNCRPD. Tara flood said:
“At the time the UK Government agreed to the Article 24 text, but as we know betrayed Disabled people, shortly afterwards, when it signed the Convention, by placing conditions on its implementation of Article 24 and allowing for the growth in segregated provision and the denial of the human right of Disabled pupils and students to a full life it might appear that, in anticipation of such an attack on Disabled children’s rights it might be appropriate to close their access to redress in the courts”
With the increase in assaults on Disabled children such a legal response from parents could have been anticipated and the Government were warned about the drastic effect of removing Legal Aid in 2011, but perhaps that was their intention? By denyig access to law, they deny access to justice and the Government knew they would be carrying out many injustices against Disabled children.
The lawyers have made clear that the reduction in Legal Aid had serious consequences for society.
For many parents seeking legal support to redress the assaults against their Disabled children there is a legal desert, leaving families abandoned to continued assaults. Parents of Disabled children do not seek conflicts, they do not want to go to tribunals or court. They are propelled into a toxic struggle with the statutory services, who they assumed were there to ‘support them’, but so many professionals have allowed themselves to become adversaries of Disabled children and their parents.
Rob Delaney, the father of a Disabled child, describes the struggle he and his partner had with statutory services in his book ‘A Heart That Works’:
“….hours, days, weeks stolen from families who could be playing with their sick child but instead they must beg for help in front of rooms full of people whose governments assassinated budgets have trained them to be adversaries of families… After many exhausting meetings and hearings that radicalised me for several lifetimes. We got Henry home…”
We cannot fall into despair at these callous injustices against Disabled children by the statutory services and Government. At the very least we must record and support every effort to influence Ofsted, CQC, Local Authorities, MPs and police where appropriate. We encourage parents to contact local Disabled Peoples Organisations without delay, (such as Special Needs Jungle) to pass your case on to the appropriate authorities – Today!