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Teather faces fierce criticism over SEN reforms

Government plans for reforming the special educational needs (SEN) system will give more power to professionals and could lead to a “huge mushrooming” in the number of special schools, a minister has been told.

Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat children’s minister, was told at the parliamentary meeting that her new SEN green paper would make it harder for parents who wanted to send their disabled child to a mainstream school.

Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said she had just returned from a visit to Romania, which had a history of institutionalising and abandoning disabled children but was now “starting to think about how to include disabled children into mainstream education”.

She said: “It saddens me so much when we see that kind of progress being made elsewhere in the world when I look at what we see ahead of us… in terms of inclusion of disabled children in our education system.”

She told the joint meeting of the all party parliamentary groups on learning disability and speech and language difficulties that the government was “turning the clock back potentially 20 to 30 years”, with the potential for a “huge mushrooming of special schools”.

She said she had attended a meeting of special school providers before last year’s general election, at which Michael Gove – now the Conservative education secretary – promised to replace 9,000 “lost” special school places if his party won power.

Flood criticised the government’s pledge to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in disabled children’s education, and said parents she spoke to who had battled to secure a place for their disabled child in a mainstream school did not recognise this “bias”.

In fact, she said, they “find it extremely difficult to get support either from the local authority or from the school, even when they have a statement [of SEN] in place.”

She said she did not believe the government’s claim that its green paper would lead to more parental choice.

Teather said she didn’t “really recognise” Flood’s criticisms around parental choice.

She said: “What we are trying to do is make parental choice happen more often. I completely recognise that there are families who are desperate to have their children go to a mainstream school.

“There are just as many families just as desperate for their children to go to a special school. We need to recognise both of those facts.”

But she said she agreed with inclusive education consultant Richard Rieser, who told the meeting of the importance of schools’ attitudes to inclusion.

Rieser said only about 20 per cent of schools were good at inclusion, while another 20 per cent were “hostile”, so it was “not surprising” that many parents “go for something else” other than a mainstream school.

Teather said: “I accept that some parents will choose special schools because a mainstream school… has not delivered.”

News provided by Disability News Service.