Campaigners for special-needs children face jail

Prison threat for refusal to pay sit-in fines highlights parents' fight for education in mainstream schools. Fran Abrams reports
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The Independent Online
Two campaigners are facing prison sentences this month in their fight to win mainstream school places for two children with special educational needs.

John Kenworthy, a clinical psychologist, and Joe Whittaker, a higher education lecturer, have refused to pay fines imposed after they held a sit-in at the Lancashire County Council offices in Preston.

Their protest on behalf of Niki Crane, a 12-year-old with brain damage, and Zak Lewis, an autistic nine year-old, is part of a growing movement for more integration in education.

A national network of parents' groups has grown up and many families are now resisting local authorities' decisions to send their children to special schools.

In Dudley, West Midlands, parents plan to take their local council to court because it refuses to place children with moderate to severe learning difficulties in ordinary schools. In Buckinghamshire, there have been demonstrations on behalf of Joanne Barker, a nine-year-old with Down's syndrome who cannot attend the school of her parents' choice because its governors say they have not been given enough funds to support her.

Mr Kenworthy and Mr Whittaker decided to take direct action after working on a voluntary basis to help families with special-needs children, including the Lewises and the Cranes. They felt that they were repeatedly fighting the same battles for different children.

In July last year, they held a sit-in at the County Hall in Preston, which ended in them being bound over to keep the peace for a year in the sum of pounds 100. After a further protest in June this year they were given 28 days to pay.

This period has now elapsed and the two men are almost certain to be imprisoned in the next few weeks. They say it will be worthwhile if it brings their cause to the public eye.

Mr Whittaker, who trains special-needs teachers at the Bolton Institute, said that although Zak will start school part-time in a few weeks, pressure must be maintained to ensure that he was allowed to go full-time.

"The pain and discomfort we will experience is nothing to the years of injustice experienced by these families. They live and breathe it," he said.

Meanwhile, the two families are educating their children at home. Niki has been out of school for a year since he left his local primary school, where he had been educated with a full-time helper since the age of five apart from a brief, unhappy spell in a special school.

His parents applied for him to go to school near his home in Hesketh Bank, Lancashire, but he was refused admission. Now they are taking their case to the new special educational needs tribunal set up a year ago to settle such disputes.

The Cranes argue that comprehensive schools are there to educate all children. "The law is written that schools are for local children and that support is there if it is needed, but more and more parents are finding there are unwritten rules," Niki's father, Peter, said.

"John and Joe have been the only people who have really been prepared to put their money where their mouth is. What can we say about people who are prepared to do this for us?"

Zak Lewis has never had a mainstream school place but after a long battle his local primary school in Burnley has reluctantly agreed to take him part-time and to try to integrate him full-time.

He spent two-and-a-half years in an assessment centre before his parents decided to take him out. Eventually an independent assessor said there was no reason why he should not be in a mainstream school. Although Zak's local school refused once again to take him, its governors have now agreed to work with him.

A spokeswoman for Lancashire County Council said it would abide by the decision of the special needs tribunal in Niki's case and that, as far as it was concerned, Zak's case was now settled.

"The school that Niki's parents wish him to attend does not have the skills and knowledge to provide education for a pupil with severe learning difficulties. In addition, the cost of supporting him there would be very high," she said.