You can't pick and choose on disabled rights, campaigners tell ministers

UK slow to ratify UN convention that would ensure equal access to mainstream schools and support services for all children

Kerra Maddern

The government has been criticised by campaigners for its apparent reluctance to adopt key elements of United Nations policy designed to give disabled children equal rights to education.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the first international treaty to give disabled people specific human rights, but there are fears that the UK might effectively opt out of part of the scheme designed to ensure all pupils get the same access to primary and secondary schools and support services.

Britain has signed but not ratified the convention, unlike many less developed countries such as Kenya, Lesotho, Mali and Mexico.

Jonathan Shaw, the minister for disability, says he expects the UK to ratify the convention this spring - months after the initial December deadline - but the Department for Children, Schools and Families has indicated that it wants to reserve the right to keep special schools. There would need to be an overhaul of the current system before the UK could offer all children with disabilities a place at their local mainstream primary or secondary.

Previous UK legislation, such as the Disability Discrimination Act, only gives children the right to a place in a mainstream school if this is their parents' wish.

Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said the Government's concerns about the treaty's scope showed a "lack of ambition" for disabled children.

"This convention is so exciting, but the Government just seems to want to keep the status quo and this leads to young people not getting the support they need," she said.

A petition on the Downing Street website organised by Scope, which is heading the UN Convention Campaign Coalition, has attracted more than 2,000 signatures.

Ruth Scott, director of policy and campaigns for Scope, said: "Human rights are inalienable and universal. If the UK is truly committed to disabled people's human rights, it can't pick and choose which convention rights it is willing to support.

"By signing it (the convention), politicians pledge to work towards its aims. In the UK we seem to have misunderstood and interpreted it to mean if signed all special schools have to close. For this reason it seems as if the Government wants to put an interpretive declaration, or note, on the treaty stressing they intend to keep special schools. They have also expressed reservations about another part of the agreement which says all children have the right to go to their local school."

Artemi Sakellariadis, director of the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, has also urged the Government not to opt out of any part of the treaty. "It's unnecessary. Everyone benefits from inclusive education, but this is not yet widely understood," she said.

Richard Rieser, of Disability Equality in Education, met Sarah McCarthy-Fry, the junior schools minister, to discuss the convention this week. "I have a real doubt the UK will even ratify this convention, which means they are promoting segregation," he said.

"It's not about it being hard to cater for these children, because it happens in many rural mainstream schools which have no choice. It's about the system."

The UK has signed up to Unesco's Salamanca Statement, which calls pn all governments to adopt a policy of inclusive education, but the DCSF has no clear policy on inclusion.

A spokeswoman for Mr Shaw said: "The original aim of ratifying by the end of 2008 was always a challenging one. Good progress has been made, but the processes involved are complex and time-consuming hence the revised ambition to ratify in the spring."

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Kerra Maddern

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