Children with special educational needs and disabilities are attending mainstream schools in fewer numbers the UK, research has shown.
Campaigners say this represents a row-back on the policy of inclusion – which means offering as many children as possible the opportunity to learn alongside peers in mainstream education.
The UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities advocates the policy of inclusion in education, and the UK signed the treaty in 2009.
The analysis, done by JPI media’s data unit using figures from the Department of Education, was published in the Yorkshire Evening Post this week. Reporters found that in the city of Leeds the proportion of children with special educational needs (SEN) attending primary and secondary schools has fallen from 18% in 2012 to 14% this year.
Meanwhile, the numbers of children attending special schools in Leeds have risen by 67%, the report said.
Nationally, the picture is the same. The number of children with SEN in mainstream education in England has dropped by almost a quarter, 24% since 2012, while the number attending special schools has increased by 31%.
Simone Aspis, campaigns and policy coordinator for the Alliance for Inclusive Education, says that the situation is a result of “both a financial cut and an ideological cut."
Aspis told Global Citizen that the financial cut refers to teacher shortages and fewer teaching assistants working in mainstream schools who can support children with special needs.
“Money is being starved out of mainstream, in order to fund this parallel system that no one really wants,” she said.
She is referring the trend of seeing more children in specialist schools because they are seen as more suitable when mainstream schools no longer have the resources to provide a good education for children with additional needs.
It’s not a choice thing — many parents don’t feel they have a choice.
Children attending special schools might not immediately sound like a controversial issue, but Aspis says that separating children can lead to intolerance of disability later in life. And because of the UN's convention on the matter, she also sees it as a human rights issue.
“We have the Equality Act, too," she said. "That means the government has a duty to take active steps to protect people with protected characteristics. But this is not promoting that. There are increasing acts of ignorance, intolerance, and devaluing people who are disabled."
She argues that it's limiting the choices families are presented with.
“It’s not a choice thing — many parents don’t feel they have a choice. Some are just taking their kids out of education full-stop, they’re opting to home-school their children instead."
The background to the situation is a mounting crisis in school budgets. An investigation in the Observer published Aug. 18 reveals that councils are overspending their allotted “high needs” budgets, meaning they are struggling to find the funds to support children with extra needs, for example those with conditions such as autism or ADHD.
Data collected through Freedom of Information requests from 118 councils in England shows that councils are expected to overspend their high needs budgets by £288 million in 2019-20 – up from £232 million in 2018-19, the newspaper reported.
“The government has slashed funding for schools and now we are seeing the consequences. This overspend reveals the stark reality that our children are not getting the support they need,” the Labour Party's shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, said in response to the findings.
Aspis said that extra spending per student on sending children to special schools is costing councils a lot.
“It’s more expensive. Residential places cost loads and when there isn’t anything suitable in the council ward children are travelling out of borough,” she said.
Gillian Doherty, who founded Send Action — which campaigns for children with special needs — told the Observer that "the cuts to specialist support was contributing to a growing attainment gap between disabled and non-disabled pupils."
The Department for Education (DfE) told the Yorkshire Post that all schools must be inclusive of children with disabilities.
“Eighty-two percent of all pupils identified as having special educational needs are in state-funded mainstream schools,” the spokesperson from the DfE added.
“Additionally, we have created new special schools in response to the increasing number of pupils with complex special educational needs and are committed to delivering even more provision to ensure every child is able to access the education that they need.”