David Cameron has a disabled son, and speaks up about it. Tony Blair was angrily confronted recently by Maria Hutchins, the mother of an autistic child. Baroness Warnock has been beating her breast about getting the policy wrong on special-needs education. Never have the needs of children with physical and learning difficulties been so much in the political spotlight.
All parties made a commitment to improving services to such children in their general election manifestos; the Conservatives have set up a commission on special educational needs; and the Commons education select committee is sinking under record piles of paperwork as it conducts a wide-ranging enquiry into the future of special-needs education.
But whether anything productive will come of it all remains doubtful. Observers say that problems with the current system are deeply entrenched, and they fear that more will be thrown up by the Government's plan to establish independent secondary schools that will be able to select their own pupils.
Meanwhile, "special needs" remains a vast umbrella, under which huddle all kinds of children, from the primary-school pupil with a mild hearing problem, to profoundly autistic adolescents and children with complex physical disabilities. "Special needs is just an administrative category," says Alan Dyson, professor of education at Manchester University, who has a specialist interest in the area. "The only thing these kids have in common is that they've been labelled special needs."
The groups fighting for their interests are equally disparate. Parents of children with difficulties are desperate for their own particular child to be safe and happy in school. Every disability group fights its own corner, while broader lobby groups tend to adopt strongly ideological positions about how society should treat difference.
This shows most strongly in the arguments about inclusion. Labour is committed to a policy of including as many children as possible in mainstream schools, and 93 special schools have closed down since l997. This is broadly in line with policies embraced throughout the Western world. But many of those children have been inadequately provided for, and as a result the pendulum has swung back towards demands for more special-school provision.
Last summer, Baroness Warnock, whose report in 1978 started the bandwagon for inclusion, said the policy had backfired, leaving "a disastrous legacy", and the Conservatives have called on the select committee to look into "the bias against allowing parents to choose special schools".
But Richard Reiser, the director of Disability Equality in Education, is dismissive of the way the select committee's enquiry has been launched in response to the Warnock U-turn. "This isn't even an issue any more. The question is not whether to include children, but how to do it effectively. You need inclusions, not placements, and for that you need more resources, more training and a mandatory code of admissions.
"Disadvantaged children should be given priority above all others. That would be the way to change the skew we have now. And there should be a limit on the use of special schools in any area. Some areas use them 10 times more than others," Reiser says.
Sir Bob Balchin, chair of the Tory enquiry into special education, disagrees. "The ideology of inclusion ought to be consigned to history. We need to look at the whole thing in a more pragmatic light. Some people gain enormously from having their needs met in a specialised environment." A forthcoming report from the enquiry team, he says, is likely to suggest a moratorium on the closure of special-school places. "Although that is not to say that every special school is sacrosanct. We need to put the individual before doctrine."
For Brian Lamb, who chairs the Special Educational Needs Consortium, the issue is how to make the best use of all resources. "We basically back the Government's presumption towards the mainstream. It is the direction everything has been moving in.
"What we want to see is more resources going into special education and a closer inter-relationship between special schools and mainstream schools, with more use of specialist expertise, and maybe regional specialist resources." Inclusion, done properly, is expensive, Lamb agrees, "But special schools are expensive, too. The more we can get the two worlds together, the better."
Peter Farrell, professor of special needs at Manchester University, sees the Government jumping in response to a strong parents' lobby that says inclusion doesn't work. "But there have been a lot of myths about how special schools are very special, with more one-to-one and so on, with not a lot of evidence that that is the case. What there is evidence of is that if children with special needs mix with others, it helps to make people in society more accepting of difference."
A second thorny issue is whether to reform the way children's special needs are identified and supported. Everyone agrees that the system of statementing, and the appeal system that backs it up, are bureaucratic, time-consuming and geographically inequitable. Both systems tend to favour articulate parents who know their rights.
There are also deep concerns that some local authorities are making statements deliberately vague, in order to evade having to pay for specialist provision.
The Conservatives want to replace statements with a simplified profile system, which will assign a child one of 12 levels of additional provision, and allow parents to take that money to whichever school they deem right for their child. "We need to look again at the whole process," says Sir Bob Balchin. "At the moment it is far too adversarial. In our view, it ought to be taken out of the hands of local education authorities who are both the assessors and providers."
But many lobby groups see the system as important for protecting a child's rights and want to reform it, not scrap it. The Advisory Centre on Education, which advises 6,000 parents a year about their rights, told the select committee: "Problems with the system arise from maladministration of the system rather than the system itself, which we believe was ahead of its time."
"The select committee is wrestling with a whole lot of deep-seated issues," says Alan Dyson, pointing out that the system of providing for children with special needs has remained fundamentally unchanged since the mid-1970s. "The Government's main priority since then has been not to turn over too many stones. There aren't any votes in reforming special education, after all. But what we have now is an education system with different structures, targets, curriculum, everything. We have to fundamentally rethink what we mean by special education, and I would hope the committee would come out at the end and say that fiddling with the system is no longer an adequate response.
"In an ideal world, special education would not be a distinct system at all, but just part of an education system that gives due consideration to all sorts of kids, with all sorts of difficulties, in all sorts of schools."
But this looks unlikely to come about. "The Education Bill is talking about more schools getting more autonomy," Dyson says. "The local authorities will be left with the responsibility for special needs provision, but they will have no power and no resources. It is, potentially, an absolutely unmanageable system."
The best of both worlds?
Peter Gordon runs Hazel Court school, a special school in Eastbourne for children with severe learning difficulties - 70 per cent of pupils are autistic - on the same site as a mainstream school. He also runs a further education unit for 16- to 19-year-olds alongside a local FE college.
He believes his students get the best of both worlds. "We've got specialised staff and superb facilities here. We've got a hydrotherapy pool and a soft play area, but we've also got access to two dining halls, an assembly hall, sports facilities and the library in the mainstream school.
"Half our children go to some lessons in the mainstream school, and loads of their youngsters come over to us every day to help with classes. They look at what our children achieve, and learn to have respect for them. This is quite a deprived part of Eastbourne, but we've never had one incident of bullying. We share the same uniform and we join in on school trips.
"There is a strong argument for having children with moderate difficulties in mainstream schools, but the curriculum needs to be totally different for children with severe difficulties. I've seen children stuck in a classroom, isolated, where staff have no support and can't call in a psychologist or language therapist. It's heart-breaking. You do need specialised provision, but co-location is definitely the best way to do it." HWReuse content