First principles

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Proposals to improve standards for disabled children must be part of a wider drive, says Scope's Brian Lamb

Disabled children are protected from discrimination when going to the cinema but not at school or college. A new Disability and Education Bill announced by David Blunkett as "an historic step forward in the pursuit of comprehensive civil rights for disabled people" will soon overturn this critical omission in current disability discrimination law.

The universal principle of education for all children enshrined in the Education Act of 1944 acknowledged the benefits of including disabled children in mainstream schools. The 1976 Education Act stated an intention to change the emphasis of special education provision for disabled children in special schools to mainstream schools, unless such instruction would be inadeqauate or cause unreasonable public expenditure. The 1978 Warnock Report endorsed the integrative approach but inclusion lost out to economics. More than 50 years on from the 1944 Education Act, only 15 per cent of primary schools and 7 per cent of secondary schools have complete wheelchair access and pupils have no protection in law from discrimination.

In 1997, the Government published Excellence for All Children - Meeting Special Education Needs setting out its intention to extend the inclusion of children with special education needs in mainstream schools. An Action Programme with specific measures to achieve SEN provision in mainstream schools by 2002 followed this paper.

Discrimination against disabled children in policy, practice and procedures will be outlawed through the new legislation. There will be a new duty on schools and LEAs to plan strategically to increase accessibility to school premises and the curriculum. The Special Education Consortium, which represents more than 100 organisations with an interest in SEN, believes the legislation has the potential to dramatically change education opportunities for disabled children and adults. But for the legislation to have real impact teachers, heads, governors and local education authorities must all be fully behind the principle of equality for disabled children and recognise the benefits that widening inclusion brings to the classroom and into society.

Inclusion broadens the understanding and skills of all pupils, and equips teachers with new skills. Katie Caryer, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy, told the delegates at Scope's annual conference about her battle to be included in mainstream education and her classroom experiences. She described the discussions in her English class that followed the study of Christy Brown's My Left Foot, which led to a deate on the use and impact of language and the meaning behind words such as "victim". As Katie said, this was not just important for her but good for the 30 teenagers in her class to widen their understanding of disability and of the power of language.

Inclusion will have a long-term impact on society as a whole. At the moment 35 per cent of people under 35 years say they have had no contact with the 8.5 million disabled people in this country. No wonder disabled people face so many barriers in both their personal and social lives. Civil rights in education will in the long term break down prejudice in society.

Real equality is not easy to achieve - integration is not inclusion. Schools need to look further than physical access to ensure disabled children do not face discrimination. Anti-bullying policies will need to be enforced and teachers will need to be trained in disability awareness to ensure that they are not unconsciously discriminating against children. One young girl with cerebral palsy has told Scope that the problems she has faced in mainstream schools have been the result of the attitudes of teachers, not pupils. She says that the best teachers are those with an open mind and willingness to admit their fears and ignorance. But after three years, her school has recognised that it needs to change to accommodate her.

The new Code of Practice, which has been rescheduled for publication after the bill takes effect, will firmly underline school and LEA new duties. Support will be crucial to ensure disabled children receive equality in education. Measures outlined in the Government's Action Programme include further support for parents, better opportunities for professional development, and the establishment of new partnerships in SEN, both regionally and nationally. The Schools Access Initiative, the result of successful campaigning by Scope and the National Union of Teachers through its Within Reach Campaign, offers pound;100 million over the next three years in access grants for schools.

Scope will continue to seek a rewording of education legislation so that economic considerations do not force the exclusion of disabled children from mainstream school, while looking forward to a fundamental change in the quality of education for disabled children. The new bill should enshrine children such as Katie Caryer with the right to be treated the same as other pupils. As she says, "disabled young people are not looking for perfection; just the chance to lead an ordinary life".

Brian Lamb was a member of the former Disability Rights Taskforce and is head of public affairs at Scope.Scope, tel: 020 7619

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