The white paper spells disaster for pupils with special needs, writes Kenny Frederick
I was listening to Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair trying to sell the education white paper, and I wondered if either of them had ever actually read Every Child Matters. I was delighted when it was published in 2004. It showed real vision and moral purpose. It was based on a set of principles that valued every child. It made clear that young people do not exist in a vacuum - they are part of families. If we are to make a difference for our most troubled children, we must support their families. I saw Every Child Matters as an extension of the agenda for inclusion.
As a school that is striving to include pupils with a variety of abilities and disabilities, we were already an extended community school and were working with many agencies. We heartily embraced the Children Act and Every Child Matters because it confirmed the direction we had been moving in and helped us by providing a framework to work within. We are now a full-service extended, training school and have a workforce that reflects our community. Our support staff have been trained and developed to offer additional support to young people in need - and to their families. We are building community capacity and enabling the community to support itself.
When Every Child Matters became an integral part of the inspection framework, it would, I hoped, make schools more accountable, particularly on admissions. It would help to ensure that all schools took more youngsters with special needs - including those with emotional and behavioural difficulties. For years I have been shocked by the blatant selection by the back door that goes on. Some of our most successful schools do their best to avoid taking on youngsters who need lots of support, particularly if they are not statemented which means they come with no money attached. The white paper proposes that trust schools manage their own admissions. The opportunities for keeping out youngsters with SEN and those without supportive families will increase enormously.
Parent power is one of the main planks of the white paper. However, reducing the number of parent governors and replacing them with parent councils is not empowering parents. Governors make decisions; parent councils don't. All they can do is voice an opinion. Many of the parent governors at my school are parents of children with special educational needs. They are very involved in their children's education. They have had to fight for their children at every point of their lives. They make excellent governors.
The white paper tells us that every school will be able to acquire a self-governing trust similar to those supporting academies. The latter will remain at the heart of the government agenda. As we know, because academies are independent institutions, they are not subject to the same rules and regulations as other schools.
One important issue is that parents of pupils with statements cannot name an academy at annual reviews or at the point of transfer from primary to secondary school. We are told that the new proposals will mean improved choice and access for all children. This is blatantly untrue.
The white paper goes to great lengths to diminish the power of local authorities, yet it puts responsibility on them to do many things - as indeed Every Child Matters does. Our local authority takes responsibility for supporting parents of children with SEN. It offers advice and support at key transition stages, at annual reviews and so on. It also sorts out the complex funding systems in a fair way.
We receive great support from our disabilities adviser and the support for learning service in successfully including youngsters with complex special needs. The parents' centre provides excellent unbiased support for parents and acts as an advocate for young people when the need arises. We are also supported in planning and implementing our full-service extended school by local authority personnel. We greatly value these services, but the Government perceives this support as interference - and seeks to do away with it.
Another proposal in the white paper is to extend the right to free school transport for children from poorer families by giving them access to the three nearest secondary schools within a six-mile radius. This is so they can go to "good" schools - obviously not their local comprehensive. I wonder how many youngsters with SEN will have the confidence to make this round trip by public transport?
With children from local communities going far afield to attend different schools, what will they do in the evenings and holidays? Who will they play with? How will different communities get to know each other and understand each others' religions, cultures, languages, disabilities, etc? It is particularly important for young people with disabilities to have friends in their locality, otherwise they can become prisoners in their own homes during the holidays. How can such schools develop as extended schools? How can they serve their community? What about social cohesion?
The Government seems determined to push schools towards setting by ability, despite there being no evidence to suggest it raises standards. We know that setting is one of the biggest barriers to inclusion and actually excludes pupils with SEN. One of the best and most efficient learning strategies is peer support - where pupils of all abilities learn together and support each others' learning. Setting does not promote this style of learning.
We need some joined-up thinking at the Department for Education and Skills and among ministers. They need to communicate more effectively if they want us to make sense of their policies.
Kenny Frederick is head of George Green's school in Tower Hamlets, east London