Fears that political in-fighting could ruin special needs Bill

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
A BILL to improve access to mainstream schools for pupils with special needs could become a victim of party politics in the run-up to a general election, campaigners have warned.

Their concern was caused by a row in the House of Lords, which was forced to sit until 4am last week after the two major parties failed to agree on the Bill's timetabling.

The Government accused Tory peers of playing games and trying to delay the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill by introducing numerous amendments. The Conservatives responded by accusing the Government of allowing insufficient time to debate the Bill properly.

If an election is called before the Bill completes its passage through Parliament then only the parts agreed to by both the Government and the Opposition will become law. With a May election likely and the Bill due to move to the Commons next week, it is uncertain whether it will reach the statute book before Parliament is dissolved. Although much of the Bill would probably be salvaged, pressure groups remain worried.

"We are concerned that something that has been viewed as non-partisan doesn't turn into a political football," said Brian Lamb, chair of the Special Educational Needs Consortium.

Ministers have so far made a number of concessions during debates in the House of Lords.

Campaign groups were delighted when the Government promied to extend the Bill to ensure equal access for children with special needs and disabilities to the curriculum as well as giving them the right to attend mainstream schools.

However, teacher leaders have warned that such a move would require extra funds.

"The real problem is not the will of teachers to include pupils but whether they have the resources," said John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers.

"It could place teachers in a situation where they face a complaint to the special needs tribunal."

Teacher leaders, as well as special needs and parental groups have welcomed ministers' promise that the code of practice will force local authorities to specify the amount of additional help that children should receive in their statements of special needs.

They were concerned that the code would allow local authorities to avoid providing expensive additional support and shift the financial burden to schools.

WHAT IS AT RISK

If the Bill becomes law it will:

* Strengthen the right to a mainstream place for the one in five children who have special needs.

* Allow schools to refuse to admit special needs pupils if that would damage others' education.

* Make schools provide equal access to learning for disabled children.

* Allow schools to request a statutory assessment of a pupil's special needs.


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