Human progress is slow to happen and sometimes hard to see: in an era as troubled as ours, the world can easily look as though it is regressing at speed. But look back, and you may see how far we have come. I grew up in a world where grim words such as “handicapped” and “retarded” were part of everyday speech, and disabled people were too often shut away. People put money in charity tins to salve their consciences, and then went back to their ignorance. A sure sign of the way society kept some people at arm’s length was the inhuman use of the definite article: people knew about “the deaf”, “the blind” and “the disabled”, but didn’t give them much thought.
Many of these attitudes linger. But millions of people now know that even the word “disability” often does little justice to who people actually are, and how much the concept blurs into the supposedly “able” population. In the field of autism, the new paradigm of “neurodiversity” underlines a similar point. On a good day, it can feel like a set of old prejudices may at last be being laid to rest. Human beings are complex: as the American writer Steve Silberman puts it in his book NeuroTribes, “Just because a computer is not running Windows doesn’t mean it’s broken. Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs.”
And then you look at the English education system – or, more specifically, the arrangements and policies for kids with so-called special educational ne – and wonder what happened. Cuts are deepening, and there is a rising sense of children who do not fit in being pushed out lest they threaten the gods of discipline, rote learning and competitive exam performance.
At the last count, 4,152 children deemed to have special ne had not been found a school place (up from 776 in 2010), and most of them were forced to stay at home without any formal provision. Even if they are in school, thousands more are increasingly being denied the support they need.
The ideal of inclusion is based on the simple principle that schools should reflect the world at large, so that education in the dry stuff of spelling and sums is accompanied by schooling kids in the meaning of diversity. Hearing people’s stories, you rather get the sense that this ideal is slowly being superseded by a mixture of chaos and the gradual return of segregation.
As things stand, the government funds the majority of pre-16 state education through the dedicated schools grant, one of whose elements is the so-called high ne block, meant to cover the education of children who either need intensive support in mainstream education, or go to special schools. From 2011 up to now, the high ne block has effectively been frozen – and to make things worse, new government rules now limit councils’ ability to top up special–ne funding from the much bigger budgets intended for mainstream schools as a whole.
Amid an across-the-board spending squeeze, dozens of local authorities are running high ne deficits. Across England as a whole, there is reckoned to be a £400m gap between what councils say they require for their high ne provision and what the government is providing. So schools are cutting back on teaching assistants, special ne training and outside help. If you have a child with special ne, or know anyone who does, you will know what all this entails. One-to-one provision at school often makes the difference between a child progressing or withdrawing. Without such support, it can feel like the sky is falling in.
At the same time, sweeping reforms to the special ne system – which, among other things, extend the state’s responsibilities to thousands of people up to the age of 25 – have been botched and underfunded. There are real concerns about academies either excluding kids with special ne or pushing parents to choose other schools. In an absurd twist, people are now exiting the public-sector system and successfully pushing councils to fund places at independent special schools.
In the London borough of Hackney, where a brilliant group of parents is fighting cuts to special ne provision and organising a legal challenge under the banner of Hackney Special Education Crisis, this latter cost now accounts for around half of a nearly £6m high ne overspend. It also threatens to create a vicious circle: more children leaving mainstream schools as their special ne provision gets cut, rising bills for special school places, even more cuts as a result.
Meanwhile, many lives are getting more difficult. I spoke this week to the mother of a 10-year-old boy who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when he was five. After three unsuccessful attempts, he now has a formal education, health and care plan that in theory makes his provision dependable and accountable. But the support at his inner London school has been diluted, and she now worries about him being bullied. Looking ahead to secondary school, she says, “We worry won’t be able to get him the support he ne. We’re going to have to battle.” Another mother told me about her 10-year-old son, recently excluded from school for two days, and promised provision that has yet to materialise. “I have a document, and I go to meetings, but I don’t see any results,” she said.
It would be easy to think that this is all about austerity, but it is worse than that. In the Conservatives’ 2010 manifesto, there was a pledge to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special ne in mainstream schools”, and push back against “the ideologically driven closure of special schools”. In the context of education policy, these pledges have since taken on a more sinister aspect.
We all know what modern English education policy is all about: results, league tables, a fixation with “discipline”. The stupid Tory obsession with grammar schools is of a piece with that. Where, you wonder, does special ne education fit in. The beginnings of an answer, perhaps, lie in a government announcement in 2017 that under the auspices of the free schools programme, there are to be 19 new “special free schools”, providing “high quality provision for children with special educational ne and disabilities”, to add to around 30 free schools that have already opened. Some councils’ policies are seemingly starting to reflect similar logic. If this causes anyone disquiet, they should get in touch with a pressure group called Allfie – the Alliance for Inclusive Education. “What we’re fighting against is segregated education,” one of their staff members told me this week. “We’re talking about an ideological drive.”
I have a child with special educational ne. He’s 11 – and, with a lot of support, he has been taught alongside his peers in mainstream state schools since he was four. He has benefited immeasurably: quite apart from how much he likes such subjects as music, science and IT, he has started to acquire some of the everyday social skills he finds difficult. But that is only half the point. His presence at his endlessly encouraging, proudly diverse school means that his peers understand what human difference means in practice. This is the ideal we are now going to have to fight for – before it gets snuffed out, with tragic consequences.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist