Ending SEN 'inclusion bias' risks segregation, warns Obama adviser
Government plans to overhaul the special educational needs (SEN) system could lead to vulnerable children being segregated and denied opportunities, according to an adviser to Barack Obama.
Ari Ne'eman has urged caution over the Coalition's plans to end the "bias towards inclusion" and said all pupils deserve the right to attend a mainstream school.
Mr Ne'eman, who was appointed to the US National Council on Disability by President Obama, made his comment on a visit to the UK to meet politicians and autism campaigners.
Children's minister Sarah Teather proposed reforms to the SEN system earlier this year in a green paper, including safeguards to protect special schools. She wants to end the "bias" towards including SEN children in mainstream rather than special schools.
Mr Ne'eman, who is on the autistic spectrum and is the founding president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said: "I attended a special school for part of my education, and there was a regrettable culture of low expectations.
"If I had stayed there I wouldn't have gone to college. There was nothing particularly special about me, I just had the opportunity to go to a different school and I was included there with the right support.
"I know about the debate about inclusion here. British educational policy must be decided by British people, and this is a debate for people in this country, but a lot of people try to argue inclusion doesn't work for all kinds of students.
"I find that's because they've not really tried it properly, putting services and support in mainstream schools and giving teachers the right training. When that happens it leads to less bullying and social exclusion."
The last Conservative government passed legislation that said pupils with SEN should be educated in a mainstream school unless this was "incompatible" with the wishes of their parents or if it would make the education of other children less "efficient". The Labour government strengthened children's rights to be included in a mainstream school.
It is not clear if the Coalition's pledge to end the "bias towards inclusion" means ministers plan to amend legislation. Parents of children with a SEN statement can currently express a preference for any state school.
Mr Ne'eman, who gave the annual lecture for the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at London University's Institute of Education, said he wants to build stronger links between autism organisations in the US and England.
Artemi Sakellariadis, director of the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, said the current position of the Government on inclusion was "deliberately ambiguous".
"On the one hand they are promising parental choice, and on the other they are placing caveats alongside that," she said. Dr Sakellariadis said that the green paper suggests the Government will amend legislation that will weaken children's right to inclusion.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "Our policy isn't about promoting one type of school to the exclusion of the other; it is about giving parents real choice over any state-funded school - mainstream or special - so they can decide what is best for their child."
The SEN systems in the US and England are similar. Children in both countries have legal rights to extra support if they are assessed as having SEN.
SEN teachers in the US have to complete a special training programme, and in some states they have to hold a masters degree, which is not the case in the UK.
Universities in the US have started offering new degrees designed for young people with SEN, so they can still get a "college" experience.