Safety in the law

The Green Paper's promise of more'named people' to support parents is not enough, says Katy Simmons,they need legal backing

The positive gloss put on the Green Paper obscures the threat it poses to the rights of disabled children. While the document paves the way for an increase in the number of such children in mainstream schools, it threatens to remove children's legal right to the provision they need.

Uniquely in English law, disabled children are legally entitled to have their needs identified, met and regularly reviewed, with no regard to a local education authority's spending plans. No child is entitled to the best - no local education authority is able to use its resources profligately. But when LEAs fail to follow the law, parents can take action.

The Green Paper promises to increase access to mainstream education. But it fails to make an equal commitment to the fundamental legal principle that children with special educational needs are entitled to have their needs met, whatever kind of school they attend.

While the document and Education Secretary David Blunkett describe the law as "red tape" or "bureaucracy" - a troublesome irritant that one day won't be necessary, for many thousands of families these "bureaucratic procedures" are in reality the guarantees offered in law to their disabled children.

Even with the law in place, it is hard enough for such families to get the provision their children need. Organisations such as the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (IPSEA) receive thousands of calls a year from desperate parents whose disabled children are being denied the provision they need and to which they are entitled. Without the guarantee of law, what will such parents do?

The Green Paper promises more "named people" who can support parents. But without legal backing, such promises ring hollow. Especially worrying is the proposal to cut the number of children with statements.

This is a crude attempt to save money at the expense of large numbers of needy children. As many as 20,000 children a year could lose their legal entitlement to the services that allow them to access the basic education that is the right of every other child.

There are further proposals that the contents of some statements should become more vague (in the words of the Green Paper, "less detailed in some respects") and for the annual review process to be weakened.

Mr Blunkett says proper provision will come to disabled children by way of goodwill from schools and LEAs. The experience of most parents is that it is the force of law - not goodwill - which protects the most vulnerable children. The calls to IPSEA's advice line show that "goodwill" cannot replace legal entitlement.

Local education authorities will welcome the Green Paper as it promises to weaken their statutory duties and increase their scope for discretion. Since 1981 they have been complaining to central government about the costs of their statutory responsibilities. Since the introduction of the Special Educational Needs Tribunal in 1994, the voices of complaint from LEAs have grown louder. Finally, it seems, they have been heard.

It is now up to parents of children with special needs and the organisations that represent them to ensure their voices are also heard. Many parents wrote to Mr Blunkett to express their concern at their exclusion from the advisory group which helped create the Green Paper. Almost three-quarters of that group were LEA employees. Parents of disabled children, or the organisations that support them, were conspicuously absent.

IPSEA urges parents of children with special educational needs, and their allie,s to see their MPs and press them to seek assurance from the Government that the rights of disabled children will neither be removed nor weakened. Some voluntary organisations have already reacted strongly to the Green Paper's threat to the rights of disabled children and have indicated that they will join IPSEA in communicating their concerns directly to the Education Secretary.

If the number of special needs children in mainstream schools is to rise , they and their teachers will need guaranteed provision. LEA discretion has never been a friend to disabled children, as thousands of parents know to their cost.

We currently have a law that protects the interests of this very small number of vulnerable children - we should make sure we hold on to it.

IPSEA can be contacted on 01628 664536 or at Office B, Brightwell Grange, Britwell Road, Burnham, Buckinghamshire SL1 8DF

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