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Tom Shakespeare

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Tom is a Research Fellow at Newcastle University. His non-fiction books include Genetics Politics: from Eugenics to Genome and The Sexual Politics of Disability.

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For whom the school bell tolls

27th June 2005

There's a good reason why inclusive education is a principle central to the disability rights movement. Historically, disabled children were widely regarded as being ineducable, and many were incarcerated in segregated schools, where they received a second-class education.
One of the landmarks in the campaign for inclusion was the famous report by the committee of enquiry led by Mary Warnock. It led to the 1981 Education Act, which established for the first time the importance of integrated education.

So Baroness Warnock's recent about-turn has consequently dismayed campaigners and families. She apparently believes that the system of issuing statements of special educational need - which her own committee recommended - is "wasteful and bureaucratic", while the policy of inclusion is a "disastrous legacy". She is quoted as having said that statements were originally intended to be given to 2% of pupils, but that 20% of pupils now receive statements.

Conservative commentator Melanie Phillips promptly got stuck into the noble lady in her Daily Mail column, describing the inclusion policy as having "caused chaos and misery for countless thousands of children and their teachers and made many schools all but ungovernable", while specialist help has been "all but destroyed".

Meanwhile, the annual conference of a major teacher's union, the NASUWT, has called inclusive education "a costly disaster", which is too expensive and disrupts the education of "the majority of children".

Given all this hysteria, perhaps it would be useful to have a quick look at the facts.

Warnock was either quoted inaccurately or made a major error on the statementing statistics. In 2004, slightly less than 250,000 pupils in English schools had statements, which represents approximately 3% of the total. That's 3%, Baroness - not 20%. The total number has increased by just 1% since 1999. The vast majority of pupils who have special needs - a total of nearly 2 million - do not have statements. Poorer children are more than twice as likely to have special educational need as children who are better off.

Yet statements of special educational needs are a vital way to ensure that a child gets the support they need to flourish. And they are based on an important principle: whereas there is rationing in the National Health Service and in Local Authority needs assessments, educational statements are the one area of law where disabled people have the right to get the services to which they are entitled. So, if anything, more kids should get them!

Contrary to the impression given by Warnock, Melanie Phillips and the teaching unions, there has not been a huge trend away from segregated education into inclusive education. The number of children in special schools has remained remarkably constant, despite the best intentions of the 1996 Education Act, and the 2001 Special Educational Needs and Disability Act which strengthened the policy of inclusion. There were 98,240 children in the segregated system in 1997, and 88, 930 in 2004. It's true that the number of state special schools has declined slightly - but now there are a few more independent segregated places.

And far from damaging the majority, the Department for Education's circular on Inclusion and Pupil Achievement last year quoted research evidence showing that inclusion improves the achievement of all students.

So any moral panic about the danger to which inclusion exposes non-disabled children has no basis in fact. Warnock is wrong. Phillips is wrong. And the NASUWT are wrong. The best schools are developing imaginative and humane ways of including young people, and everyone benefits. Non-disabled kids grow up less prejudiced about disabled people. Disabled kids feel part of the mainstream, rather than a neglected minority.

Of course, some parents are concerned that their child is not getting the support they need. It's true that, in some cases, education authorities have closed special schools and tried to force integration to save money, at the cost of vulnerable young people. And it would be wrong to attack the quality of education in many special schools. Those disabled activists who remember with bitterness the neglect and incompetence of their own school days may sometimes be out of touch with the quality of teaching and support in today's special schools.

Contrary to the slogans of some campaigners, it's my personal belief that we shouldn't be demanding the immediate closure of all special schools. To me, it seems plausible that there are a very small number of young people whose special needs are better met outside the mainstream classroom. And there are many more whose transition to mainstream needs to be carefully organised, not rushed through on the cheap.

Warnock, Phillips and the NASUWT are part of an alarming backlash against the principle of inclusion. Rather than sitting on their laurels, parents and educators and disabled people must work together to defend hard-won gains and open up more schools to disabled children, following the lead set by the excellent Disability Equality in Education project and the Alliance for Inclusive Education. There's no reason why the vast majority of disabled children can't be educated alongside their non-disabled friends.

Today, a child given a statement of special educational need is more likely than ever before to be educated in a mainstream school. That's exactly how it should be.
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