Stephanie Northen meets a mother who had to fight to get her son into the mainstream
Rahila Gupta is battle weary. For the first time in more than a decade she is letting a school fight for her. It makes a change for a woman more used to fighting schools.
The issue is whether her 15-year-old son Nihal, who has severe cerebral palsy, will be allowed to take his GCSE maths in a multiple-choice format. The fact that this is being discussed at all represents a victory for his mother and a recognition of the boy's abilities.
Mrs Gupta has been struggling against "unshiftable prejudice" rife in what she regards as the system of apartheid that segregates children with special needs. Ten years ago she caved in and let her education authority - Brent in north London - send Nihal to a special school. "Although I have always supported the principle of inclusion, it seemed an insurmountable battle then to send him to the local primary."
She soon regretted the decision. "It was a glorified baby-sitting service, and the biggest irony of all was that he was not getting the care and stimulation he needed."
Eventually Nihal was going to two special schools - but staff expectations were low. While the school for children with moderate learning difficulties would report that he could distinguish between a rolling and a sliding object, the school for severely-handicapped pupils would say that he could not even recognise his own name.
Mrs Gupta blames the training. "It limits the staff, they cannot see beyond labels. If you find a mainstream teacher who is open to inclusion they are much more prepared to look at the individual child and listen to the parents."
Nihal, who is non-verbal, did not even have a statement of special needs - partly bcause his mother thought that he had. She would be sent documents detailing her son's requirements, she would negotiate with the authority about them and eventually she would sign. It was four years before someone pointed out that all she had was a draft statement that guaranteed Nihal nothing.
Mrs Gupta was driven to take her son out of school and educate him at home with the help of a speech therapist and a maths tutor. She also took his case to the special needs tribunal and ultimately to the local government ombudsman. There she won a case of maladministration, pound;5,000 in compensation, and, eventually, she secured Nihal a place at a mainstream secondary school.
It was the maladministration that allowed her to go to the ombudsman, says Lesley Campbell of Mencap. While Nihal is not mentally handicapped, the charity supports the principle of cases such as his - inclusion where parents want it.
Usually parents can only turn to the special needs tribunal, which has no teeth to enforce its recommendations. The Special Educational Consortium, of which Mencap is a member, is worried that the forthcoming disability rights legislation is not going to improve this situation and that parents such as Mrs Gupta will still have to fight lonely battles.
Nihal is now flourishing at South Camden community school. He has a "wonderful" learning support assistant and his mother, despite all the problems, concedes that there have been positive shifts with regard to disabled children.
"There are more and more kids in mainstream education and they get there with less of a battle. There is easier access to specialised teaching and one-to-one support - these seemed like massive gains in the past, now they seem just a little bit more routine."