The priority for headteachers this year should be tackling disproportionate bullying and exclusions of pupils with special educational needs or disabilities, the junior schools minister has said.
In a strongly worded letter to all school leaders and chairs of governors, Sarah McCarthy-Fry demanded that more should be done to reduce expulsions of special needs pupils and their progress should be monitored more robustly.
The letter, sent recently to remind heads of government guidance, says all schools should have consulted on and published a disability equality scheme which should now be in use.
Special needs organisations welcomed the stance, but warned guidance alone will not help. They believe pupils and disabled children would only be treated equally in a totally inclusive education system.
Ms McCarthy-Fry reminds heads that planned local authority spending on special needs has risen from Pounds 2.8 billion in 2001-2 to almost Pounds 4.9bn in the last financial year. As part of the Children's Plan, Pounds 31m is being spent on a pilot project to find the best ways of helping pupils.
Last year, just 12 per cent of pupils with learning difficulties got five good GCSEs compared with 57 per cent of their peers. Children with special needs are nine times more likely to be excluded from school than other pupils.
"We are working with the National Strategies to understand the factors behind exclusions of SEN children and to identify good practice in areas where the number of these exclusions has been reduced," Ms McCarthy-Fry writes.
Keith Smith, of the British Institute of Learning Disabilities, said he welcomed the minister's letter, but more needed to be done to stop widespread ignorance about disabled people among pupils and teachers. "We have a segregated education system and in many cases it's rare for children in a mainstream school to come across someone who is disabled," he said.
"Consequently, when they do, they see them as different and, unsurprisingly, this leads to bullying. Many teachers are not given enough training to be able to understand the issues which lead to bad behaviour among SEN pupils or how to stop them being bullied.
"It seems Sarah McCarthy-Fry's letter is designed to join recent legislation and developments."
Tara Flood, of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, a national network of individuals, families and groups, said she also wanted greater government commitment to inclusive education.
"I've been disappointed by Sarah McCarthy-Fry so far because of her lack of comments about disabled children or those who have special educational needs, but I'm really pleased she has reminded schools of this guidance," she said. "The Government has to have much higher aspirations for these young people."
The law and SEN
- The last SEN code of practice came into force in 2002. Teachers were told children had a much "stronger" right to be educated at a mainstream school.
- Schools and nurseries had to tell parents when SEN provision was being made for their child.
- Ofsted now monitors schools' SEN policies and practices. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 prohibits schools from discriminating against disabled children.
- Teachers have to make "reasonable" adjustments for children with special needs and after 2002 they had to make classrooms accessible.
The Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008 gives the Secretary of State the right to request and publish information about special needs children.