SPECIAL NEEDS campaigners have tentatively backed proposals in the Queen's Speech to help
disabled learners in schools and colleges.
A new special needs Bill will encourage conciliation between parents and education authorities in disputes over services for special needs children. Authorities will be required to set up parent partnership schemes, offering advice, information, and independent support for families.
There is also the prospect of a legal ban on discrimination against pupils and students - though this is not guaranteed.
Ministers hope the reforms will reduce the number of statements of special needs issued each year. Currently, around 3 per cent of pupils are subject to statements - legal documents that set out their needs and how they will be met.
Parents will still be able to take disputes to special needs tribunals - and education authorities will have to comply with their decisions within new, tighter, deadlines.
Any new proposals for disabled children would build on the recommendations of the disability rights task force, which has already reported to ministers (see TES, August 6).
It proposed a right for disabled children not to be discriminated against at school, and a duty on schools, colleges and education authorities to makebuildings more accessible, and practices more inclusive.
The task force's full report is expected to be published early next month - in time for its recommendations to feed into the Bill.
The Special Educational Consortium, which brings together a number of organisations, welcomed the new Bill.
Chairman Paul Cann, who is also chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said: "The consortium wants stronger links between disability legislation and special needs law. It supports increased opportunities for children to attend mainstream school where their parents want this, but will want to look closely at the detail."
"We look forward to working with the Government to promote the best outcomes for children with special educational needs."
Other measures affecting children in the last Queen's Speech of the millennium include proposals to:
Criminalise sexual relationships between teachers and 16- and 17-year-old pupils.
Reform child-support arrangements.
Give more help to young people leaving local authority care.
The Queen said: "Education remains my Government's number one priority. My government will continue to implement policies to reward good teaching, reduce infant class sizes, and continue the drive to build on the improvements in literacy and numeracy already achieved."
There were no surprises for the further education sector.
A new Learning and Skills Council will be responsible for the planning and funding of all post-16 education and training, excluding universities.
Across the nation there will be 47 local councils intended to ensure that skill and community learning needs are met.
In Wales, a new Council for Education and Training will enable the National Assembly to put new structures in place for the post-16 sector. The Government hopes to save at least pound;50 million with this plan through reductions in bureaucracy.
A new youth support service will encourage young people to stay on in education or training. The Office for Standards in Education will inspect full-time 16 to 19 education courses in colleges and there will be a new Adult Learning Inspectorate.
David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, said the legislation would be built around the needs of learners, rather than providers of education and training.
"We need to create a highly skilled workforce, and nurture a love of learning. The existing system is inadequate to achieve this."