Schools 'fail' special needs children : Lesley Gerard finds disagreement over the education of youngsters with learning difficulties

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Education for London children with special needs has been branded an unfair lottery by a national charity. The Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education (CSIE) is demanding a Government investigation into London councils which are failing to integrate more disabled children into mainstream schools. They claim the opportunities for these children depend purely on which borough they live in.

According to a report compiled by the charity from raw data supplied by the Department for Education, Lambeth has a higher proportion of pupils in segregated special schools than any other education authority in the country. Hackney has the third highest. Camden was among the country's 20 most integrated authorities, ahead of all the other inner London councils, while Havering had the third lowest segregation in the national table.

Mark Vaughan, co-director of CSIE, said: 'For disabled children in London, more than anywhere else in the country, it is a lottery. A Lambeth child is six times more likely to be in a special school than one in Barnsley.

'What is needed is a more consistent approach. Gillian Shephard (Secretary of State for Education) should be addressing this as an issue as a matter of urgency, for the capital and the rest of the country.'

However the study has angered officials within the authorities it targets, who claim it fails to analyse the quality of education they provide. Sometimes local authorities find that moves towards increased integration meet with angry opposition from parents.

At Fleet Primary School, Fleet Road, Camden, head teacher Pat Hollister believes integration works, but only if staff are given proper training and support. 'The more children with special needs that you integrate into a school and the greater their disabilities, the more staff support you will need. Resources are not infinite and authorities have to gauge correctly the expense and pressure on the school before expanding integration,' she said. 'Having said that, it can bring great advantages. The children learn about life and individual differences in a positive way.'

The study by the CSIE showed that in eight London boroughs the number of 5- to 15-year-old pupils receiving education in special schools was above the national average of 1.49 per cent in 1992. These were Lambeth (2.98 per cent), Hackney (2.76), Wandsworth (2.47), Hammersmith and Fulham (2.29), Southwark (2.1), Kensington and Chelsea (2.09), Greenwich, (2.06) and Sutton (1.94). All are among the 20 LEAs in the UK with the most pupils in special schools.

Other London boroughs were among the top 20 LEAs but had lower segregation ratios. They included Camden (1.07), Newham (1.05), Bromley (1.02), Bexley and Barnet (0.99), Harrow (0.84), Barking (0.79), Havering (0.73).

The biggest difference in segregation ratios was between inner and outer London boroughs. Twelve outer London boroughs are among those that have achieved the biggest decrease in segregation between 1988 and 1992; Barnet, Bromley, Ealing, Harringey, Havering, Merton, Newham, Harrow, Redbridge, Bexley, Hounslow and Kingston.

The divergence is an historic problem which dates back to the existence of the ILEA. 'Two decades ago,' said Mr Vaughan, 'educationalists were broadly in favour of special schools. The ILEA had a world-famous policy of segregated education. By the time it was disbanded in 1990 that philosophy had changed, and it was moving towards increased integration. However boroughs such as Lambeth and Hackney are still coping with the legacy of a high number of special schools'.

Representatives from all eight London boroughs defended their record. A spokeswoman for Lambeth said the authority had conducted a review to improve special needs provision in mainstream schools while retaining a range of special facilities.

Officials at Southwark pointed out that the proportion of youngsters in its special schools had dropped to 1.59 per cent by January 1993 and was expected to continue to decrease as integration policies take effect.

Greenwich council said it had a high proportion of children with special needs in the area (1,070 pupils). Officers said the number of children in mainstream schools formally identified as having special needs had increased from 189 in 1990 to 350 in 1994. A spokesman added: 'We take the issue seriously. Every child

should have the proper support and resources, but we cannot and will not simply dump pupils into mainstream schools and call it integration.'

A spokeswoman for Kensington and Chelsea council said: 'There has been a steady increase in integrated education in the borough. However children must be educated according to individual needs and according to the wishes of their parents. We do not operate a blanket policy.'

Christopher Woodward, Assistant Director of Education at Sutton, said: 'It is unfortunate that this report concentrates only on comparative figures and not quality of education. We are committed to integration. Our figures have improved continuously.'

Spencer Roberts, Assistant Director of Education and Leisure at Hackney said: 'Our aim is to integrate wherever possible. We have significantly reduced the number of pupils in residential schools, closing two such schools. Our concern must focus on the needs of the child. Furthermore in some cases the parents insist on special school education. We have to respect their wishes.' He added that Hackney accepted students from neighbouring boroughs into its special schools and this also affected the figures.

Hammersmith and Fulham council said: 'We would challenge the validity of these figures. They are misleading. The reason we come fourth in this table is not because we have a higher degree of segregation, but because we have more children with special needs.'

A spokesman for Wandsworth said: 'The council's policy is to have as broad a range of alternatives as possible to meet parental preferences. We are committed to integration. These figures do not reflect the fact that we have inherited more special schools from the ILEA days than most.'

(Photograph omitted)

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