The first warning shots have sounded in a battle over special schools. As the Government prepares to consult on an action plan for the next five years of special education, pre-emptive strikes have begun.
The combatants are disability charities and special schools fighting for their future, mainstream schools protecting their league-table position, the campaigning inclusion lobby, and parents variously and passionately committed to all sides of the argument.
The trigger for conflict was the publication in March of a report by the Government's Special Schools Working Group. That group was carefully chosen to represent every shade of opinion. As a result its report is minutely balanced between promoting inclusion of special needs children in mainstream schools and expressions of support for special schools.
Seeking to further reassure special schools, minister Baroness Ashton put out a pre-emptive press release emphasising that the Government, while supporting inclusion, was not planning to shut them down wholesale: "We are committed to developing a more inclusive education system" she said, and then backflipped to continue: "Inclusion is not an agenda to close special schools."
The statement was greeted with headlines such as "Minister holds out lifeline to special schools" and "Promise broken on disabled schools", depending on who had lobbied the correspondents first.
So where are we actually heading on special education? The answer seems to be a painfully slow move towards inclusion: six years on from the 1997 Labour government's Green Paper "Excellence for All Children", which committed itself to inclusion, progress has truly been paltry.
Figures from the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE), newly analysed by The TES, show that at current rates of change it will take the worst local education authorities authorities over 100 years and the average LEA 55 years to reach inclusion levels already achieved by the London borough of Newham, seen as a trailblazer in bringing special needs pupils into the mainstream.
Between 1997 and 2001, the average authority reduced the percentage of children in special schools by just 0.0175 per year. During that period 41 authorities actually boosted their special school population. (Admittedly, more children were statemented in these years - no one knows if this represents a genuine increase in need, or changes in diagnosis and statementing practice.) There are no figures showing how many special schools opened or closed during this period.
The least inclusive authorities have a long way to go: at present a child with special needs in Liverpool is seven times more likely to be in a special school than one in Newham. If they are to close this gap, then, whatever the talk of a "new role" for special schools, some of them are bound to close. As the Audit Commission puts it, "An inclusion strategy will involve tough decisions".
Manchester, which until recently was on a 130-year trajectory to Newham's inclusion rate, knows this. After drubbings by Ofsted, it embarked on a massive consultation - 11 focus groups and 26 meetings - on inclusion. It has just agreed one special school closure; over the next two years it expects to close another five.
Some of these are schools that simply would not exist in other authorities - for example, primaries dedicated to EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties and MLD (moderate learning difficulties).
Even if it reaches its 2005 target, Manchester will still have 55 per cent of statemented children in special schools - a higher percentage than most metropolitan authorities.
Until recently, says Mark Vaughan, founder of the CSIE in Bristol, the DfES has ignored pleas to deal with LEAs that make no progress.
"Every time we have written to them asking what they are going to do about the discrepancy between authorities they just dismiss it with bland bureaucratic language about local freedom to interpret the law. If they are showing concern then it is very welcome and long overdue."
Backed by increasingly vigorous statements from the Audit Commission and Ofsted LEA inspections, the word is that ministers are determined to deal with the worst offenders The DfES is drawing up an action plan which goes out for consultation this summer, and should be published at the end of the year.
The plan's less controversial content is relatively easy to predict.
There will be some kind of "Inclusion Mark' award for mainstream schools that genuinely open their doors wider not only to children with physical disabilities and learning difficulties but also to the fastest-growing and most problematic group, children with emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD).
Better planning is also promised once the first ever audit of special needs takes place in the school census at the beginning of 2004. At present although we know how many children are statemented, we have no idea what they are statemented for. The number of, say, autistic or dyslexic pupils in special or mainstream schools is based entirely on guesswork.
Measures such as an inclusion mark are simple carrots. Trouble will come over the sticks.
Almost certainly the action plan will propose that both individual mainstream schools and LEAs should set targets or "indicators' measuring progress on inclusion. And it will also draw attention, for the first time officially, to the huge variation in inclusion between LEAs.
But Manchester's experience suggests that change will not be easy. Even progress so far has been hard, says assistant education director Jackie Harrop: "It has been a slog. But it is also very rewarding, because we now see children succeeding in mainstream schools."
If Manchester continues to shift children into mainstream at its current rate, it will take over 20 years to achieve Newham's inclusion level. It's not a figure to set the pulse racing. But it is better than 131 years.
WILL IT TAKE 100 YEARS?
Authorities which at national progress rates would take over 100 years to reach Newham's level of inclusion: Brighton and Hove, Knowsley, Lambeth (London), Lewisham (London), Manchester, Reading, Wandsworth, (London).
Authorities which would take 80-99 years Birmingham, Coventry, Durham. Ealing (London), Greenwich (London), Hackney (London), Halton, Hammersmith amp; Fulham (London), Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Plymouth, St Helen's, S. Tyneside, Slough, Stoke on Trent, Trafford, Westminster (London) Wigan, Wirral.
Figures extrapolated from "LEA inclusion trends in England, 1997-2001" by Brahm Norwich, available from CSIE, website scie.org.uk. *The Report of the Special Schools Working Group, March 2003, available on the DfES website, dfes.gov.uk