Charities, teachers' leaders and campaigners yesterday condemned plans that could remove thousands of children from the special-needs register.
Ministers have announced a series of reforms in the belief that too many children at schools in England have been wrongly labelled as having special educational needs (SEN).
There will be a new single category of SEN with tighter rules on which children fall into it. The reforms will see parents given more control over their children's SEN budgets, and will also legally force education, health and social care services to plan children's support together.
But teachers' leaders warned the biggest problem facing SEN support was a lack of funding and the change in rules could leave some children who need support without it.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said her union was worried the plans are "driven by a desire to cut costs" and some children will not get SEN support.
Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said: "There is a danger more children with autism will fall through the gaps in the education system."
Wendy Lee, professional director for The Communication Trust, said: "As schools are given greater flexibility to determine their own policies and practices on SEN... it is vital [they] are scrutinised by Ofsted and local authorities on the services they provide, to ensure that the large numbers of children with mild and moderate speech, language and communication needs are not overlooked."
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The Government is wilfully ignoring the large degree of consensus behind the current statutory assessment system. Giving parents a slice of a smaller pie does not give them more control. Parents recognise that the most important issue that faces their children is insufficient funding and cuts to SEN and disability services, not choice."
The move comes after Ofsted warned that children were being wrongly identified as having SEN because of poor teaching. In a 2010 report, Ofsted said as many as half of pupils identified for School Action, the lowest SEN category, would not have needed extra help if the teaching at their school had been better. Almost 1.7 million schoolchildren in England – more than one in five – are classed as having special needs.
Children's Minister Sarah Teather said: "The current system is outdated and not fit for purpose. Thousands of families have had to battle... with different agencies to get the specialist care their children need. It is unacceptable they are forced to go from pillar to post – facing agonising delays and bureaucracy to get support, therapy and equipment."
Case study: 'Personal budgets won't solve the issue'
Liam Mackin's parents remortgaged their house to fund a £22,000, two-year battle with their local authority to get him a place at a special school.
Liam, 17, who has Alstrom syndrome, which has left him blind and with a hearing impairment, is now a sixth-former at the £40,000-a-year New College in Worcester.
His mother, Liz Little, 43, and stepfather Dean Little, 42, believe that Liam would not have been able to achieve so much in the mainstream school his local authority wanted him to attend.
Liam attended a special primary school until he was nine. He was then forced to attend a mainstream primary but was so unhappy that his parents withdrew him after a year.
Mr Little said: "We withdrew him and took him to see a child psychologist. He diagnosed Liam with childhood depression and said whatever you do, do not send him back to that school."
Mr Little said that he did not think "personal budgets" for parents would solve the problem.
He said: "It won't be enough to fund really specialist provision. Specialist provision is very expensive, but for some children it provides exactly the support they need."Reuse content