Parents of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) could see their power to select schools extended to the independent sector under changes being considered by the government. Ministers may give families the right to formally demand that local authorities pay for their children to be educated at private special schools outside of the authorities' control.
Last week it was announced that parents would be allowed to express a preference for SEN academies or free schools over special schools run by councils. But it has emerged that Department for Education officials are in discussions about extending that right to private non-maintained special schools, which usually educate children with the most profound and complex needs.
Currently, families are only allowed to "make representations" for a non-maintained special school. The changes would significantly strengthen the position of parents in the school selection process and require local authorities to give greater consideration to their wishes. Local authorities are legally obliged to comply with any preference expressed by parents, unless the school is unsuitable for the child or the placement is not an efficient use of resources.
The new rule, included in a document outlining SEN reforms to be introduced in the next two years, is designed to improve parental choice. Parents of children with SEN told a DfE consultation that they "can face challenges" in securing places at their preferred schools. The DfE document said officials had "considered very carefully whether to include independent and non-maintained special schools in the proposed change to the law on parental preference".
"We are discussing the implications of such a change with the sector and hope those discussions can shortly be concluded positively," the document continued.
Claire Dorer, chief executive of the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-maintained Special Schools, said her members would welcome the chance "to be on a level playing field" with local authority schools, free schools and academies. "There is little difference between them and us and it isn't logical for there to be a split," she said. "If we went on parental preference, the majority of our schools would be full or oversubscribed."
Jonathan Farnhill, chief executive of the non-maintained Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education, has pupils from 40 different parts of the country. He said he hoped the decision would lead to "fairer and better decisions being made".
"I hope it will lead to a focus on the school's ability to meet the needs of the child, rather than which particular sector the school is in," he said.
But there were voices of dissent. David Bateson, chairman of the Federation of Leaders in Special Education, said he was concerned the move would lead to local authorities finding it more difficult to plan their own SEN provision. "This could be a big issue. Schools, too, need to plan, especially in terms of staffing, and more choice could impact on them if there is more rapid movement within the system," he said.
Similarly, Brian Lamb, who led a review of parental confidence in the SEN system for the last Labour government, said he did not anticipate that the reform would cut down on the number of parents going to tribunals to gain a place at a particular school.
"The local authority's decision-making process will still be subject to whether the school is an effective and efficient use of resources. Somewhere down the line they will still have to afford the school place," he said.
The current system
The SEN code of practice says: "Local authorities must comply with a parental preference unless the school is unsuitable to the child's age, ability, aptitude or special educational needs, or the placement would be incompatible with the efficient education of the other children with whom the child would be educated, or with the efficient use of resources."