Special needs experts occupy education office: Protester collapses during eviction

TWO experts in children's special needs were evicted over the weekend from Lancashire's education offices after an overnight sit-in.

During the eviction one of the protesters, Joe Whittaker, a lecturer in special educational needs, collapsed with a suspected heart attack. He is now recovering in hospital.

He and John Kenworthy, a consultant clinical psychologist, were protesting against Lancashire County Council's refusal to provide mainstream education for two children, and instead allocate them places in special schools.

They have been supporting the families of Zack Lewis, aged 7, and Nicky Crane, aged 11, for several years. They have learning difficulties and their parents want them to be placed in mainstream schools. Nicky has been in a mainstream primary school, but the authority wants to transfer him to a special school for his secondary education.

Mr Kenworthy said last night: 'It was deadlock with the authority. We felt there had been long-term prevarication by the council, and even intimidation, with the threat of legal action against the parents if one of the children was not sent to a special school.'

He and Mr Whittaker turned up on Friday at county hall, and were given assurances, they say, by Andrew Collier, the chief education officer. They said they were told they would be seen later by other education officials.

They spent Friday night sleeping on chairs in the board room at county hall. On Saturday morning friends threw up a rope to the first floor room they were in, and they managed to pull up food, and a change of underwear. Shortly afterwards, police and security guards evicted them. Mr Whittaker rushed back up the steps and collapsed.

Keith Berry, chairman of Lancashire's special needs sub-committee, said he was unaware of one case and had not heard from the second child's parents for three years. 'This is all about meeting childrens' needs. We listen to parents and take their views on board. But this is all about meeting needs relevant to the individual child.'

A Labour MP will today urge Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, to repay to schools the pounds 100,000 spent on attending conferences on special educational needs. Steve Byers, MP for Wallsend, compared the cost of pounds 94 charged to each school attending the conferences, with the free 'roadshows' organised to promote the Government's grant- maintained schools initiative.