Josephine Gardiner surveys the Green Paper on special needs and talks to its architect, schools minister Estelle Morris.
Keen to reassure: Estelle Morris, Minister for Schools, admits that teachers will not be easy to convince on the issue of inclusion.
Estelle Morris's boss is a blind man who defied the patronisingly low expectations of children with special needs and became Secretary of State for Education. David Blunkett's views will have had an enormous influence on the consultation paper published this week, but if his junior minister is not personally committed to educating pupils with special needs in mainstream schools, she is a very good actress.
"Morally, educationally and socially, the arguments for greater inclusion are very well put," says the Minister for Schools. She describes how she was inspired earlier this year by the sight of 15 children in wheelchairs in a Birmingham school playground. "They were not just sitting in a corner, but careering around, playing with the other children. I'll never forget that picture." As a former teacher in a multi-ethnic city comprehensive, she foresees no problems from the mainstream children who will find themselves working next to physically or mentally disabled peers. "If children are properly prepared, they are very adaptable ... children with disabilities are their neighbours, they go to the same Brownie packs, so it is ludicrous to suggest they should then be separated at school."
But she admits that teachers may not be so easy to convince. "Special needs", she acknowledges, is a term that includes a vast range of difficulty. It is the inclusion of those with emotional and behavioural difficulties in particular that has prompted the NASUWT union to back members who refuse to teach such pupils, and its general secretary Nigel de Gruchy has already made threatening noises about industrial action if the Green Paper leads to an influx of EBD pupils into mainstream classes.
Estelle Morris is keen to reassure that the Government is not insisting on a dogmatic adherence to inclusiveness: "We are not talking about massive closures overnight. Parents' right to request a special school place will remain. " There will always be children for whom separate specialist attention is right, at least for a while. But special schools' role should be redefined: "I want to rename them specialist schools, schools that specialise in special needs just as others specialise in technology or arts."
Likewise she is anxious to defuse accusations that the Government is motivated purely by the need to cut escalating costs, and that a drive to reduce the numbers seeking statements of SEN would threaten these children's protection under the law. "The statementing process will stay and the tribunal will stay - we are proposing nothing that takes away parents' right to statements or access to the tribunal. But the massive increase in children being statemented and in parents going to appeal is an indication that the system lower down is not working."
The Green Paper proposes streamlining the earlier, school-based stages of the code of practice and reviewing the code by next year. "The code itself has become a means of eating up money and resources." More help given as early as possible will have the double benefit of increasing the child's chances and saving money, the Government believes.
From next year, money will be available under the new Standards fund (formerly Grants for Education Support and Training) for "parent partnerships" between parents, their local education authority and a voluntary special needs agency, and "named persons" will be provided for parents during the statementing process rather than after it.
The minister admits that when she started work as a newly qualified teacher she felt ill-prepared to recognise or help children with special needs. The Green Paper proposes more in-service training, and notes that initial teacher training now requires knowledge of the code, but there are no proposals for more theoretical initial training about different types of special needs, which is something teachers frequently say they wish they had been given. Estelle Morris does not rule this out, but argues that teaching practice would supply experience of special needs - though this would vary considerably from school to school.
She also freely admits that the position of young adults with special needs is an area that has been neglected. Plans for pupils' future after 16 should be drawn up earlier, the Green Paper proposes, and the forthcoming White Paper on lifelong learning will include proposals for college and university students with special needs.