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Ed Balls will soon challenge the credibility of Tory school funding plans, which look set to be central to the election campaign.
When he does so, he shouldn’t shy away from exposing the potential cost of the Tory pledge to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools" (p7 draft Tory manifesto).
The benefits of the inclusion of children with SEN within mainstream schools aren’t limited to overcoming the exclusion and segregation that disabled children and adults have suffered for decades. Nor is it just about the huge benefits that it brings to other pupils at schools whose experience is widened as a result. It is also about the efficient use of scarce resources. The parties who support inclusion should not be afraid of saying so.
When Labour embraced the idea of inclusion, it was reluctant to make the financial case. But the cost savings of not having to build new ‘Special’ Schools, or maintain costly old ones, means that more money can be given to mainstream contexts in which everyone benefits.
Sending a child away from their own home and local community to a residential segregated special school usually cost around £40,000-£50,000 per year, with costs of over £100,000 not unusual for extra "special" schools. For a child to go to their local school with the necessary support is usually a fraction of the cost.
Significant numbers of special schools were actually closed by the Conservatives, and the rate of closure has slowed down under Labour. In 1997, there were 1,171 maintained special schools. By 2009, there were 985 such schools - a net reduction of 186. Between the years 1986 and 1997, under the Conservatives, there was an even bigger reduction of 234.
But even with the closures, funding for Special Schools has still been increasing by about 6-7 per cent per annum since 2003. The cost of maintaining existing special schools is now approaching £2 billion a year.
Given the huge investment that has now been made in adapting mainstream schools to include children with SEN, to now go back to a model based on special schools would require huge capital investment, and significantly increased annual running costs. It would also mean that much of the investment had been wasted. In short, the Tory plans are about waste and inefficiency.
There are also many unanswered questions. How many new schools for example, are the Conservatives planning to build/open, bearing in mind that over 400 have been closed since 1986?
The Conservatives have provided no indication, let alone costings for their plans. But it looks as if, at the very least, they would run into hundreds of millions of additional annual expenditure, if not billions.
See also: Tory proposals would 'turn the clock back 30 years' for disabled - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11395