Do Tories encourage special needs children in mainstream schools?
Jonathan Bartley: “Why doesn’t your manifesto say that you want to encourage children [pointing at his disabled son Samuel] into mainstream schools?”
David Cameron: “It absolutely does say that sir, I promise you.”
David Cameron, confronted by a parent (see video below) in South London, 27 April 2010
Cathy Newman checks it out
When party leaders hit the campaign trail they’re always braced for an encounter with disgruntled voters. In 2005 Tony Blair was handbagged by Maria Hutchings over the closure of special needs schools, and in 2001 he had an embarrassing run-in with Sharon Storer over her partner’s cancer treatment.
Gordon Brown has so far pretty much managed to avoid such confrontations – partly because his habit of taking tea with Labour supporters means he manages to avoid trickier voters.
But David Cameron has had a few uncomfortable moments. Today was his stickiest yet.
The Tory leader was confronted by the father of a disabled boy today, who asked why the Conservative manifesto seemed to promise a shift away from educating special needs children in mainstream schools.
Mr Bartley – who said he had to fight for two years to get his seven-year-old son Samuel into the mainstream St Leonard’s School in Streatham, London – was convinced the Tories wanted to move away from educating disabled children in mainstream classes.
David Cameron, who disabled son Ivan died last year, disagreed. Who was right?
So what does the Conservative manifesto say on this issue?
Well, the only time “special needs” is mentioned in the document is on page 53, where it states: “The most vulnerable children deserve the very highest quality of care, so we will call a moratorium on the ideologically-driven closure of special schools. We will end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools.”
Pretty clear cut then, as Bartley pointed out to Cameron, the Tories have pledged to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools.”
Not so, say the Tories. They told FactCheck: “Our manifesto says that we will ‘end’ the bias towards inclusion, it does not say we will ‘reverse’ it.”
The implication being, they said, is that they will free up parental choices by ending the bias – not push children towards a certain form of education by reversing it.
It’s a “clear implication” they said.
Despite not outlining this part of the policy in their manifesto, they stressed: “Our approach to special educational needs is all about supporting parent choices.”
Bartley told FactCheck that he felt, in practice, there was not even a proper policy of inclusion at the moment – so feared the Tory manifesto pledge actually meant even more hurdles for parents who wanted their disabled children to be taught in mainstream classes.
He said: “They [the Conservatives] do talk about ending the bias in their manifesto. And yes it is true that many parents would actually want their children to be educated in special schools. But in my experience if there’s a local school that can cope with a disabled pupil and it is adequately resourced – then they would love their child to go there.
He added: “Labour are staying very silent on this issue, and I am not impressed by the Lib Dems either. This issue has not been a feature of this campaign – despite Cameron talking about the Great Ignored.”
Nasen, formerly known as the National Association for Special Educational Needs, is a leading organisation in the UK which promotes education of those with special and additional support needs. It said the bias towards educating disabled children in mainstream schools had emerged in the past 20 years, but the difficulty of getting a special needs child into such schools very much depended on the local authority. So whereas some parents faced a fight, others found the process much easier.
However, the Alliance for Inclusive Education, which campaigns on this issue, was far more critical of Cameron. Its director Tara Flood told FactCheck: “The moment your child is deemed to have special needs you shift out of the system; you go into the special needs framework, and then the pressure turns on the parents. There is no bias, it is tough going.
“The idea the Tories will bring more ‘choice’ is a sham. Cameron told Jonathan he understood what he had been through. But we know Cameron never wanted his son to go to a mainstream school – so he does not know.”
Cathy Newman’s verdict
Cameron denied “absolutely” that his manifesto suggested ending the bias towards educating disabled children in mainstream schools.
However, that’s exactly what it does say. The Tories subsequently briefed that parents should be given greater choice, allowing them to send their disabled children to a mainstream school if they wished.
But that’s not a subtlety contained in the manifesto, as Cameron should know. On the basis of what he said to Mr Bartley though, he needs to do some homework on just what is contained within the smart hardback cover of his manifesto.