A report by the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, based on Department for Education and Employment data, shows that between 1992 and 1996, 71 out of 107 English local authorities reduced the percentages of pupils placed in special schools. In 1996 the special-school population declined to 88,849 or 1.4 per cent of all five to 15-year-olds, the lowest ever for England. In the same year, 58.45 per cent of all children with statements were being educated in mainstream schools.
The report analyses data for 1993, 1994 and 1996 (the DFEE did not have complete data for 1995). The study does not reveal how many pupils with special needs are in special units within ordinary schools, or whether the trend towards inclusion applies equally to pupils with Down's syndrome, for example, as to those with physical disabilities or behavioural problems.
The figures also reveal a dramatic difference between local authorities in how they educate disabled pupils. In 1996, children with special needs in Wandsworth, south London, were eight times more likely to be in special schools as those in Newham. In that London borough 89.2 per cent of children with statements were being educated in ordinary schools. In Coventry, by contrast, the figure was 28 per cent.
Inner London LEAs tend to dominate the league table of what the report calls "high segregating authorities", with outer London boroughs more likely to opt for an inclusive approach.
Mark Vaughan, co-director of the CSIE, has written to Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett, asking him to investigate a "core group" of 10 LEAs that have "consistently made a low priority of the legal duty to include".
The Government recently announced a new advisory group on special needs, chaired by education junior minister Estelle Morris, which will produce a Green Paper in the autumn, addressing the issue of inclusion, among other matters.
The author of the study, Brahm Norwich, professor of special needs education at the London Institute of Education, points out that the figures belie predictions that market pressures on schools to secure good placings in performance tables would discourage them from taking on pupils with special needs.
However, he said that the study - A Trend Towards Inclusion - should not be used to encourage complacency about special needs. "It must be seen in the context of a massive rise in exclusions. These figures do not pick up on those who do not fit into the special education system. I'm not trying to paint a pretty picture."
Brahm Norwich also called for more consistent monitoring by LEAs of what they do with children with SEN, and admitted that a reluctance to stick permanent labels on children had made it impossible to collect information about different types of special need.
He added that, despite the continuing trend towards inclusive education, many people in the field were now taking a less dogmatic approach - recognising the importance of assessing each child's individual needs.
Nigel de Gruchy, whose union, the NASUWT, adopted a report against inclusive education at its last conference, said that "the enforced inclusion of children with severe behavioural problems is the biggest single reason why standards are so low. The pressure on schools is reflected in the increase in exclusions - these children are shunted around the system until they end up together, creating schools like the Ridings, making those schools harder to run."
The 10 authorities criticised in the CSIE report are: Coventry, East Sussex, Hackney, Knowsley, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Sandwell and Wandsworth.
A Trend Towards Inclusion by Brahm Norwich is published by the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, 1 Elm Lane, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6UE.