Inclusion lottery exposed
New government figures show huge variations in levels of inclusion, despite legislation giving all children the right to be educated in a mainstream setting.
The issue has become a political hot potato with Labour and the Conservatives setting up inquiries into the future of special education.
Conservatives would halt the closure of special schools but Labour has encouraged more integration.
David Cameron, the shadow education secretary and father of a three-year-old son with cerebral palsy, has said it was easier to escape from Colditz than get a child a special school place.
Mark Vaughan, co-director of the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, said: "It is simply unfair and unjust for families that moves towards inclusion have been so slow, and that these variations still exist 22 years after the law to include disabled pupils in mainstream education first came into force."
The figures show that between 2002 and 2004, 1.46 per cent of special needs pupils from South Tyneside attended a special school or centre, compared with 0.06 per cent in Newham, east London.
Segregation was also high in Wirral, at 1.34 per cent, Halton and Knowsley, at 1.32 per cent, Stoke-on-Trent at 1.23 per cent, and Birmingham and Lewisham, at 1.21 per cent.
Inclusion was high in Rutland, where only 0.23 per cent are segregated, followed by Nottinghamshire at 0.45 per cent, Nottingham at 0.47 per cent and Cumbria at 0.49 per cent.
The findings come just days before the start of the Inclusive and Supportive Education Congress 2005, in Glasgow, which will be attended by special needs experts from around the world.
The study found that segregation fell overall in England from 0.84 per cent to 0.82 per cent between 2002 and 2004.
It pointed to the gulf between local authorities, questioning their commitment to inclusion and the "unacceptably wide degree of local variation".
The most, and least, inclusive local authorities said their policies had been implemented after consultation with families.
Maurice Walsh, South Tyneside's special needs manager, said: "We offer the education that parents choose, whether in a special or mainstream school.
Our special schools are highly valued."
Judith Cameron, Newham's acting divisional director for access and inclusion, said the borough had two special schools. Mainstream schools were funded to cater for specific learning difficulties.
Baroness Warnock, the architect of the inclusion policy 25 years ago, recently switched sides in the debate and called for a "radical revolution" to reverse the damage caused by educating some pupils in mainstream schools.
Claire Dorer, chief executive of the National Association of Independent and Non-Maintained Special Schools, said: "A child enrolled in a special school may be getting most of their education in a mainstream setting.
Special schools do not necessarily isolate pupils."
The Department for Education and Skills said: "Inclusion is about much more than the type of placement: it is about the quality of the educational experience and how far children are able to learn, achieve and participate in the life of the school."