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Disabled students denied options

New research shows families of pupils with special needs are losing out on school choice. Adi Bloom reports

Preethi Manuel is tired of fighting. The single mother fought to get her disabled daughter Zahrah into a mainstream primary school. She fought to get her into a secondary. Now, once more, she is fighting to get her into college.

A survey by Scope, the cerebral palsy charity, reveals that Ms Manuel is not alone. Scope found that nearly 60 per cent of parents with disabled children had not been offered a choice of school for their child. Of those, 44 per cent said that they were dissatisfied with the school chosen for them.

More than 250 parents were questioned for the survey. Most were parents of children with cerebral palsy; 50 per cent of respondents' children attended special schools, compared with 17 per cent of disabled children nationally.

The findings came as the Government announced it will give local education authorities pound;15,000 a year to fund a network of choice advisers to help parents from disadvantaged backgrounds find good schools for their children. Emily Wooster, who compiled the Scope report, said: "Choice advisers are intended for parents from disadvantaged groups.

Clearly, parents of disabled children are part of that group. They come across so many barriers when trying to find a school."

Preethi Manuel's daughter, Zahrah, 18, has cerebral palsy. When she was four, her local authority - Camden council, in London - assigned her to a special school. Only after Ms Manuel and 25 supporters staged a sit-in at the council offices was she allowed to enrol in a mainstream primary. But it took a High Court battle to get her into a mainstream secondary school.

Now, Ms Manuel is fighting to have Zahrah admitted to a drama course at North West London college. But the college requires an assessment of her work. This presents a significant obstacle for Zahrah, who cannot speak.

Pat Brennan-Barrett, head of learning support at the college, said its representatives had visited Zahrah's school five times and are now examining staff-training requirements.

"We're taking it very seriously," she said. "We're liaising with exam boards. We want to offer her the correct course for completion and success.

If we put her on a course she can't complete, she won't feel good about it."

Robert Softley, a 26-year-old professional actor with cerebral palsy, insists that disabled students should not be excluded from subjects such as drama.

"Actors are playing real people," he said. "So they should be real people.

People don't just communicate through speech. You can use your face and body."

Baroness Warnock, regarded as the architect of inclusion, agrees that the Government's emphasis on choice has yet to benefit children with special needs.

"It's a postcode lottery," she said. "Some local authorities are extremely dictatorial."

She will be among the speakers addressing a one-day conference in London on June 20, organised by Scope in partnership with The TES, to discuss special needs education. For more information about the conference, "What works? Educating disabled children for life", see page 25 or visit www.scope.org.uk

* adi.bloom@tes.co.uk

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