Schools, local authorities and colleges of further education will have to review their admissions procedures for disabled pupils when the new Disability Discrimination Bill becomes law later this year.
They will also have to publish their admissions policies and may find themselves increasingly challenged at appeal hearings if disabled children are refused places.
The new Bill is Government-sponsored and has been brought forward to replace the more radical but ill-fated Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, sponsored by Harry Barnes MP and backed by the disability lobby.
The Government Bill had originally made no mention of education, but measures protecting disabled students were included at the last minute after pressure in the House of Lords. They are likely to come into force in the 199697 academic year.
The Bill still does not go far enough to satisfy groups like Scope, formerly the Spastics Society, which has been pressing for laws obliging central government and local authorities to make three quarters of all schools wheel- chair accessible.
Scope argues that civil rights-based legislation would allow disabled students to compel local schools to make the necessary structural alterations. "If a disabled child wants to go to a school and can't, it's a case of discrimination," said Parliamentary Officer Pauline Graham. "It's important we start right from the beginning with improving access to schools."
Despite the new Bill, she said, the onus will still be on parents to fight hard for school places.
Schools will also be obliged to lay down procedures for ensuring that disabled pupils do not encounter discrimination once they are given a place.
"We aim to place a duty on the face of the Bill for governors to publish information about, first, the arrangements for the admission of disabled pupils; second the steps taken to prevent disabled pupils from being treated less favourably than other pupils," said Government minister Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish introducing the Bill.
Colleges must in future make a "disability statement" setting out their suitability.
These will include details of access, specialist equipment, admissions policies, examination arrangements and counselling and support services.
The definition of disability is more narrow than that of special educational needs: it involves a physical or mental impairment with a substantial long- term effect on a student's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. The restricted definition should keep down the cost for LEAs of implementing the Bill when it becomes law.
John Fowler from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities welcomed the new measures but criticised the Government for introducing them suddenly, without consultation.
"If the Department for Education and Employment wants credibility with the education world it ought to think of these things a little further in advance. Instead we have measures which no one knows anything about. Why can't they take the trouble to tell people and consult?", he said.
A Government circular is expected to be published in the late autumn.