Karen Thornton reports
SCHOOLS which fail to adapt their buildings and curriculum to suit disabled pupils could be brought before special needs tribunals, under plans drawn up by government advisers.
The wide-ranging proposals from the Disability Rights Task Force, chaired by education minister Margaret Hodge, are likely to cost hundreds of millions of pounds.
Further education colleges, universities and even council-run evening classes should also be made to do everything reasonably possible to ensure disabled students can attend their courses, says the group, which is helping lay the ground for the launch of the Disability Rights Commission next year.
If accepted, the plans - due to be published in the autumn - would for the first time draw schools within the scope of legislation which outlaws discrimination against disabled people.
Education was omitted from the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, and is seen as a key battleground by civil rights campaigners and disability groups.
But the recommendations have received only a cautious welcome from the teaching unions. They say that extra resources are needed to support wider inclusion, and are concerned that individual schools might be accused of discrimination.
Task force member Brian Lamb of Scope, the charity for people with cerebal palsy, said: "School governors and managers are going to have to really engage with this area. They will have to take a more proactive approach in deciding what will make their school a more friendly and welcoming environment for a disabled child wanting to go there."
Members believe the proposals, if implemented in full, would lead to a long-term cultural change within education.
Schools would have to reconsider their policies, practices and procedures, and make reasonable changes for disabled students. This might mean ensuring a child unable to use stairs could attend lessons in ground-floor classrooms, or providing curriculum materials in Braille for visually-impaired pupils.
But the task force recognises that the bill for adapting college and school buildings, and providing aids and curriculum support, could run into hundreds of millions of pounds.
The three biggest teaching unions are also worried about the costs involved if individual schools are taken to the tribunal.
Olwyn Gunn, assistant secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Unfortunately, experience shows that when children with severe special needs are included in mainstream schools, the finances and the staffing ratios are not there."
Gwen Evans, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned that the tribunals would create a "shadow of fear" among individual teachers.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said ministers would consult with the Disability Rights Commission before deciding what action to take in response to the task force's final report and recommendations.