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…