Lib-Con cracks start to appear

It must be difficult, as many Liberal Democrats must have done, to completely re-evaluate your political philosophy and beliefs and to re-align your policies with people you previously thought were a bit nuts. Even more remarkable to do this in a matter of hours, with the media banging down your door. And, what an achievement to then produce a document which sets out what you and the people you used to think were a bit nuts now wholeheartedly believe. I bet it was great fun (look at us, who’d have thought, we’re Liberal Democrats, in Government!), but it’s hard to paper over the fissures for too long. Those long-held beliefs and differences will soon emerge. And in the unlikeliest of places. Let me explain.

Should you find yourself flicking through a copy of the Lib-Con coalition agreement, turn to page 29 and look very closely at the section on ‘vulnerable children’. Here is the line that got Cameron in some difficulty when he was challenged by a father with a disabled son -it says the Lib-Con governments will ‘remove the bias towards inclusion’.

Now, what this ‘bias’ meant is that if you have a child that has a disability then you can argue and push to have your child included in a mainstream school and the school would be expected to make adjustments to include that child. Not for a second am I suggesting this is easy. Anything but; it needs a determined parent to get what they want for their child and there’s many parents with the battle scars to prove it. But the direction of travel is clear: towards inclusion of children with special needs and away from segregating children.

One example of this – a close friend pushed for their partially sighted son to be included in their local school, with his older brother. They set out their case, his needs were assessed and the school made some changes to include him (in this case, extra adult support and one or two special resources – like magnifying screens to help him see text). Now he can join in with his peers and doesn’t face being shipped off to a distant special school. The benefits are huge – and obvious. I know not everyone has such a rosy experience, but – in this case – the ‘bias’ towards inclusion was incredibly important and meant the right result for parent and child.

The Lib-Cons plan to remove this bias.

Bizarrely, they claim this as some kind of pretence to increase parental choice. What choice will there be if parents don’t have some kind of mechanism to push their local school to include their child? Under the Lib-Cons the choice would be skewed towards a special school. Or – as Michael Gove wants – hard-pushed parents could of course set up their own free school! Imagine that: a country with lots of Gove free schools, setting their own admissions policy: how would a parent of a disabled child get a place?

So – are the Lib-Cons one big happy family on this issue?

It seems not. The new Lib-Dem Equalities Minister loves schools where special needs children are integrated into the mainstream, so much so that she went to see one last week. Her verdict? The school was ‘wondrous’, with ‘fantastic teachers’ and an assembly with hearing and non-hearing children was ‘gorgeous’ (http://bit.ly/aDXHvm).

Aside from the excessive use of superlatives, this does make you wonder why she spent so long opposing a Labour Government, given the wondrous schools produced under their watch.

More to their point, her view contrasts with the coalition agreement. She wants inclusion where it is beneficial and appropriate (to the child, I presume); in other words, to strengthen the bias. But at the same time, she is supporting the removal of one of the few levers parents have to make their case for inclusion.

This doesn’t add up. I can see a crack appearing…

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6 Comments

Filed under Conservatives, Lib Dems, Policy, Politics - general, Schools, Special needs

6 responses to “Lib-Con cracks start to appear

  1. 2me2you

    Big Society is a clever policy on behalf of the Tories, it’s covert elitism – and if we realise that and don’t like it they can say, “well you didn’t embrace it did you…”

    If its generally covert in its elitism, it’s certainly overt when the formula is applied to education.

    As you say ‘Gove Free’ schools really is a farcical idea – who has the time/effort to form their own school and like you say with their own admission policies. It’s a scheme for the well off, that will benefit the well off. It’s also extremely naive.

    Labour didn’t drive that home enough for me. I came out of an excellent state school in 2004 – pretty much half way through Labours years in govt, and from my experiences there is not that much wrong with the state system. I thought careers advice was dire, essentially because it didn’t exist. But on the whole I don’t see huge gaping holes in the quality of state education.

    We already have a private sector in education, I don’t really see the need to go down that road even further.

    Education doesn’t need an overhaul, just a lick of paint here and there.

    • I agree. I think the key thing about the last 13 years of Labour Government is not that perfection has been achieved or that mistakes haven’t been made, but that the direction of travel has been in the right direction (more funding, better training for teachers, smaller class sizes, huge improvement in school buildings, rising standards etc). When times are economically hard, it strikes me as all the more important to invest in education and focus on improving all schools. It’s not the time now (if ever) for a free schools experiment, particularly not when it’s been far from a success in Sweden (standards not raised, increased segregation).

  2. Linda Goddard

    Whatever happened to plain English? To quote ‘remove the bias towards inclusion’. I had to think what that actually meant, doh.
    My daughter was educated in the state system and is now at university studying to be a teacher, her education taking place through the years that the Labour party was in power. I have no complaints about the schools she attended (well, nothing major) and even if I wanted to, could never afford private education. Voters have such short memories and I for one have seen the improvements in education , not least of which was the building programme. Where I live, there are two newly built, state of the art high schools within a five mile radius.
    I seem to remember there’s a quote… something about a society being judged by how it treats the most vunerable of its members? My best friend has a son who is autistic. They have tried him at main stream school, which unfortunately was unsuccessful. He now attends a “special school” and is very happy and thriving. It seems to me that there is a place for both in the education system, giving parents and children choice.

  3. Hi Linda,

    Thanks for your comments – good luck to your daughter, teaching is certainly an interesting profession and it looks like it’s going to being going through an awful lot of changes in the next few years.

    I agree completely that there is a place for both special and mainstream schools. However, over the years lots of children with special needs have had only one real choice – a special school. Mainstream schools have been difficult to access (literally in the case of wheelchair access). Special schools work out well for some, but not for others.

    The move towards inclusion in mainstream is generally good (but of course shouldn’t be forced). It would have negative consequences if a whole group is separated from another, simply because of their perceived abilities or disabilities.

    The key point is that the balance must be in favour of inclusion (even if parents choose not to go down this route). This then means parents can argue for a mainstream school/local authority to adapt it’s environment or make extra provision to support a particular child. Without some kind of ‘bias’ in favour of inclusion, it would simply be too easy for mainstream schools (with tightening budgets) to make access harder for children.

  4. Linda Goddard

    I am an occupational therapist and of course my core belief is that society and the environment create the barriers for people with disabilities, denying them access to many areas in life we take for granted, something that many people cannot get their heads around. We should promote inclusion for all, but this usually involves financial commitment by the government. I know from my own experience that this is usually the driving force behind why many people with disabilities still have problems accessing many areas of the community.
    My fear is that a Tory government will continue to deny people their basic human rights.
    Ok getting down off my soap box. You can probably guess that I am left of field in my politics!

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