David Cameron: My personal crusade to save special schools

When I found the school that met my son's needs, it was a wonderful revelation
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The Independent Online

"If voting changed anything, they would abolish it," said Tony Benn. But there is, thankfully, at least one part of the country where this dictum didn't apply at the last election. In Gloucestershire, a Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition running the county council and committed to closing special schools was thrown out by the voters and replaced by a Conservative administration pledged to keeping them open. Yesterday, I visited one of the threatened schools - Alderman Knight in Tewkesbury - where the sense of relief among teachers, parents and children was palpable. To watch the careful and individual attention given to the children in a safe environment was extremely moving.

"If voting changed anything, they would abolish it," said Tony Benn. But there is, thankfully, at least one part of the country where this dictum didn't apply at the last election. In Gloucestershire, a Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition running the county council and committed to closing special schools was thrown out by the voters and replaced by a Conservative administration pledged to keeping them open. Yesterday, I visited one of the threatened schools - Alderman Knight in Tewkesbury - where the sense of relief among teachers, parents and children was palpable. To watch the careful and individual attention given to the children in a safe environment was extremely moving.

Others have been less fortunate. Since Tony Blair came to power, dozens of special schools have closed, with parents, teachers and children left in despair and specialist skills thrown away. And this at a time when, due to medical advances, the number of children with severe disabilities is on the rise.

There is a simple reason why this matters. Surely it is right that parents with special needs children should have a choice between special and mainstream schools. Not every child is the same - and not every school should be the same. Far too many children with special needs are not getting this basic choice - and their education and development is suffering as a result.

As the parent of a child with what are now called "Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties", which includes cerebral palsy and epilepsy, I feel this particularly strongly. There was a time when I found it hard to believe that there was anywhere outside home or a hospital where our son could get the care, therapy, attention and - yes - education that he needs. When we found the special school that met his needs, it was a wonderful revelation. To find such dedication, skill and support was an incredible boost after several years fighting for him on our own. I know how betrayed I would feel now if his school closed.

But these schools are closing, leaving parents to worry, families to suffer and children to be denied valuable life chances. For thousands of children, special schools are essential, because they are best placed to provide one-on-one attention, specialist therapies, medical support and special assistance to overcome a specific disability. Seeing these schools threatened with closure because of politically correct notions of "inclusion for all" makes my blood boil: these are peoples' children, not guinea pigs in some social experiment.

I am, of course, not against inclusion when it is appropriate. For many children with special needs, mainstream schools are the best environment for their education. But, across the country, there is a dangerous alliance being established between those education experts with a doctrinal opposition to special schools and those holding the purse-strings, who are hostile to them on cost grounds. Throw in the facts that the law is biased in favour of mainstream schools, the application process is torturous and the process of obtaining a "statement" for a special needs child little short of agony and you can see why special school rolls are falling. We've lost almost 80 schools and 6,000 places since 1997.

So what should be done? There is a reference in Labour's mini manifesto for schools to an "audit of special schools" to ensure appropriate provision. If the government wants to do more than just pay lip service to this, my opposite number Ruth Kelly should do four things.

Firstly, start the audit now and ensure it is carried out by someone with a balanced view, rather than one of the usual pro-inclusion suspects. Secondly, ensure the audit fully takes into account the views of parents who often feel left out of the decision- making process. Thirdly, look at changing the law to remove the bias against special schools and give parents a clear and well-informed choice. Fourthly - and most importantly - there should be a moratorium on special school closures at least until this audit is completed.

We should not underestimate the despair felt over the special school closures by parents who already face a pretty tough struggle to raise a child with disabilities or learning difficulties in a society that can seem uncaring and unsupportive. This is about parent power. About school choice. About helping the most vulnerable in our society. About ensuring that no children are left behind. Saving special schools can achieve all these goals.

If Ms Kelly and her government are serious when they spout these political mantras, I urge them to pick up on my suggestions. Let's fight together to improve the lot of disabled children and their families.

The author is shadow Education Secretary

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