The 1981 Education Act embodied some of the child and family-centred focus of the Warnock Report of 1978, setting out the duty of local authorities to integrate children into mainstream schools and laying down procedures that would involve parents in the process.
But the practice did not meet the theory. Parents waited years for their children's statements of educational need to go through, until the 1993 Act brought in time limits.
The 1988 Act was as much a watershed for children with special needs as for able-bodied children. The entitlement curriculum, with its emphasis on assessment, has worked to the advantage of children with special needs in some ways; the fact that few pupils have had to be excused, or "disapplied", from the national curriculum is a sign of how parents, children and teachers are working within its boundaries.
On the downside, says Philippa Stobbs of the Council for Disabled Children, "Schools have become too focused on resources and not enough on the teaching that the resources are there to support." She puts this down in part to LMS pressures. "There is very little in mainstream budgets for children with special needs under LMS. The real costs are much higher than what is recognised in the budget formulae.
"The result is that schools have strong incentives to encourage parents to go for statements. But fundamentally, it's about how the school supports a child's learning, not about an extra helper in the classroom one day a week. Another problem is that despite the Government's policy of promoting parental choice in education, some LEAs plead insufficient resources when parents try to move children from special schools to mainstream education."
The international movement for inclusion, backed by UNESCO and many British, American and European human and disability rights organisations, is based on the belief that all children have the right, no matter what their disability or intellectual competence, to go to mainstream schools and have friendships and relationships and interactions with ordinary people.
Some parents are still fighting - and sometimes losing - battles with their local education authorities (see case study, below right). But part 4 of the 1996 Act, giving LEAs the duty to integrate children with special needs, will continue to have a major impact on inclusion despite its crucial provisos.
In 1992, 85 to 90 per cent of statemented children were in special schools. In 1996, for the first time in England, just over half the children with statements were in mainstream. It is, however, something of a lottery, depending on individual LEAs and dictated by their philosophical approach to inclusion.
Mark Vaughan of the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education sees inclusive education as the only future for a humane society. But it will require the restructuring of schools, which is what is happening in North America. "Our model of what school is for may be steeped in an antiquarian view of what education is about," he said. "Maybe we need to change that view."