Issue 215 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Voices from the frontline

Nick Catlin is a special needs coordinator in an East London school.

Davy considers himself to be the luckiest boy alive. He survived a car accident that left him without the use of his legs but he's alive and he now has wheels in the form of a fast electric wheelchair that means he can clear a path down our school corridors faster than Ben Hur. When he came to our school from a special school he was shocked at his own low level of achievement, so he decided to do something about it.

The teachers responded wholeheartedly to his drive and ambition and the extra support staff helped to back him up when he needed it. Newham has taken the unusual step of closing the majority of its special schools and transferring resources into resourced schools like ours. The school was made 95 percent accessible through lifts and ramps and specialist toilet facilities. We have been able to provide extra teachers and learning support assistants to work in classes to help meet children's needs and access the curriculum. Davy finished with 10 GCSE A, B and A* grades.

The government's new green paper, 'Excellence for All Children - Meeting Special Education Needs', should be a document that ensures young people like Davy, and others with more profound difficulties, are able to access and benefit from the inclusion into mainstream education.

The paper rightly advocates early identification of Special Educational Needs (SEN) and support for parents at an early stage. The resources at present are woefully inadequate and rely mainly on hard pressed NHS health visitors, social workers and paediatricians. Much of the rest of any other support comes from voluntary support groups and charity organisations.

The green paper's early intervention plans rest largely on better identification and multi-agency cooperation and better early primary education.

The government says, 'There is no reason why children with similar needs in different parts of the country should not have similar opportunities to attend mainstream schools.' This is a welcome shift in attitude as local education authorities (LEAs) at present have the power to direct children to separate special schools against the wishes of the parent and child.

There is, however, a serious fudge taking place when it comes to implementation. Special schools have committed and caring staff, but their very existence has a tendency to lower educational expectations and tends to offer a skewed social environment, segregating disabled young people from their peers.

When I first started teaching in a special school in 1975 I was shocked to find children who had been locked away for all of their life in a 'subnormality' hospital, some mutilating themselves from boredom and lack of stimulation as they had never been entitled to full time education of any sort. Subsequent education acts and the groundbreaking Warnock Report (1978) have thankfully changed the horrors of this sort of SEN provision and a few LEAs like Newham have now closed the majority of their segregated schools.

The green paper, however, advocates that special schools should remain but in a new partnership with mainstream schools. In this role special schools would become advisory agents and offer support to mainstream schools which want to pursue inclusion through cluster groups. This is a recipe for disaster.

This will not end segregated provision or shift the resources necessary for mainstream schools to really cope with a fully inclusive policy. It will simply add further burdens on already hard pressed staff in mainstream schools who will be expected to find the time and room to work with some very needy children.

For inclusion to begin to work all special school teaching and non-teaching staff need to be transferred to mainstream schools and schools need to be offered substantial amounts of money to make up for cuts in mainstream school budgets. Some 98,000 children are at present in special schools and they will not be adequately catered for in schools that have been starved of even basic resources.

There is no mention of class size in the whole document and yet placing a child with severe learning difficulties in a mainstream school with class sizes of 30, even with one to one support from a learning support assistant, is a very different proposition from a small special school with classes of six, a teacher and an assistant.

Teaching the full national curriculum to classes of 30 with a wide ability range and at the right pace for all children takes a great deal of preparation, marking and liaison time with specialist staff. None of this is available in school at present. Putting in the odd lift, toilet and ramp is not sufficient to modernise school buildings left for years without money for maintenance and rebuilding. The green paper offers some cash but a massive rebuilding programme is needed in every school.

David Blunkett also proposes to cut the number of SEN 'statements'. This is a slow and frustrating process but in English law disabled children are legally entitled to have their needs identified, met and regularly reviewed with no regard to LEA spending plans. The SEN statement is the document which defines such provision. The green paper offers 'named people' to help resolve disputes, but without SEN statements backed by the law what can they do? This is another crude way of saving money. As many as 20,000 children a year could lose their legal entitlement to access to basic education.

Davy's existence is not the only one of successful inclusion into our school. We work in one of the most deprived authorities in Britain where many families face problems of long term unemployment, low pay and poor housing. The support of staff, students and their parents in our school for young disabled people with Down's syndrome, autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy and severe learning difficulties has been superb. The problems that we continue to face are ones of resources which no amount of goodwill and effort can replace.

Newham was forced to cut its education budget by 4 percent under the Tories the year it launched its inclusive education policy. It is interesting to wonder what our special needs children could achieve if given opportunities in mainstream schools equivalent to those offered by public schools.

The green paper is a cowardly document. Teachers, parents, disabled people and the rest of us will have to continue to organise through petitions, demonstrations and strikes to win better resources and conditions in our schools.

Jonathon Neale talks to a housing worker

Fiona is a housing adviser for an inner city council. Recently she saw a woman who was 40, had arthritis of the spine, and lived on the fourth floor with no lift. On a bad day it took her 40 minutes to walk up four flights of stairs. Imagine being stuck in a flat like that, Fiona says, hard to get out, getting back in even worse.

Because the woman had serious health problems, Fiona was able to make her the highest priority the council allows for a transfer. Fiona thinks the transfer will happen in two years. Why?

The government long since stopped building council housing. About a quarter of council property has been sold off under the right to buy. But that quarter is mostly big flats, and includes a high proportion of housing at street level. And the woman with arthritis of the spine has a husband and three children.

In 1977 the Labour government of the time passed laws which controlled rents, gave homeless families the right to permanent council accommodation and

protected people from eviction by private landlords. The Tory housing act of 1988 removed some of that, and three acts this year have removed most of the rest.

There's a big estate near Fiona's office, where 80 percent of the people are on benefit. But with the removal of rent control the cheapest bedsitter costs 75 a week. So when children grow up they stay at home. They don't have a job. They're on Jobseeker's Allowance. They get on a course. They don't finish the course. Pressure builds inside those homes. Too many people in too little space. Domestic violence increases. People hit their children. Parents kick their kids out. People are desperate for housing or transfers.

The council has always been Labour. Now the government is too. At the top, there's an obsession with image. So the council has changed the rules to make it much easier to qualify for a transfer. Now you go right onto the transfer list. And stay there. Fiona says it's like qualifying for a liver transplant but there's no liver.

Still, it looks good. The council promises the phone will be answered on the third ring. You won't have to see somebody in jeans and trainers any more. There'll be somebody to see you whenever you go in - Wednesday night or Saturday morning too. But are you going to get the service you need?

In local government now, the catchphrase among the workers is 'The Emperor's New Clothes'. They mean New Labour sounds good and looks naked. There are more and more evictions for rent arrears. Fiona recently had a client, a women who had been 'known to the social services' since she was 12. She'd been depressed since she was 12. She had three teenage children. All of them had 'special needs' - none of them could read. Her husband went to prison for beating her up. When the housing benefit ran out, like it does every six months, she forgot to renew it. They sent her letters. She couldn't read them, so she binned them. She lost her housing benefit. Soon she was thousands of pounds in arrears and they evicted her.

Now the council says it won't rehouse her because she made herself intentionally homeless by not applying for housing benefit. The woman's kids aren't stupid. The family are nice people. They just never had a chance. Fiona was talking to the oldest one, who said he always wanted to do a college course but of course he couldn't. Fiona said, 'Why not? You're smart enough.' For the next half hour that boy beamed at Fiona and she knew nobody had ever said that to him before.

The council tells the housing workers that there's a shrinking cake, so they have to ration resources. They have to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving poor. The council creates a feeling that the workers ought to suspect everybody who comes through the door.

And the council tries to get the clients to blame the workers. It tells the local press the workers are going off sick for nothing all the time, that they're always late for work, that they're just sitting around chatting to each other instead of answering the phone. But mostly it doesn't work.

Sure, the clients come through the door in a rage. But that's perfectly all right with Fiona. She's very angry too. Sometimes people have been cooped up with their problems and the hatreds of their loved ones too long. They snap and come in screaming. But if you talk to them decently, with empathy and respect, they don't take it out on you.

Fiona directs their anger to the council and the government. Of course, sometimes they say, you ought to... Then Fiona says, 'Hold on. I work for them. If you worked for the bus company, they wouldn't let you drive a number 6 bus down the number 30 route, would they?'

Fiona can talk like that because she has a strong union in her section. She's built it over the years. She's always sold Socialist Worker. She's done collections, had a Liverpool docker in to speak, built the Anti Nazi League and been on strike. Over fifty people from her department lobbied the Labour Party conference in September. These things matter.

But most important of all have been the daily calm and gentle arguments over case by case, client by client, slowly winning her fellow workers to the idea that it's not the client's fault. So now Fiona can tell the truth to her clients, because everybody in the office knows it's the truth. Management can't get her for it.

Four years ago Fiona's office had six frontline staff seeing clients. They had time to make phone calls, really understand the problem, refer people on, build a relationship. Now there are three frontline staff. In the council as a whole there are 60, management wants to reduce it to half that by March.

Some people in the housing department hate Blair. Many still have hopes, say give him time. But there's an anger building. They had a mass meeting of housing workers. Some 120 people came. The stewards laid it on the line - we want you to strike, no rolling action, no sectional action, no one day strikes. All out, for as long as it takes. It won't be a short strike.

Nobody voted against. Nobody even abstained. It was unanimous for all out strike.

The Unison full time officials won't let them ballot for strike action. They cannot imagine a political alternative to Labour. So it's harder to get them to call a ballot now than it was under the Tories. The officials are embarrassed about that, because the members are furious. So they twist and turn, and they hide behind the law.

Maybe Fiona and the other stewards can force the officials to call a ballot. Maybe not. If not, they'll have to go for an unofficial strike. I ask Fiona if her members are bitter enough yet to stay out even if the officials cut off strike pay, even if they write to everyone telling them to go back to work, even if they come down to the picket line and tell people to go back to work. 'I don't know,' Fiona says. 'But we're going to have to find out.'

Matt Foot on legal aid.

The 1945 landslide Labour government introduced the great reform of a legal aid system. The 1997 landslide Labour government is beginning to dismantle it.

On 15 December 1948 Sir Hartley Shawcross, the Attorney General, proudly introduced the legal aid bill as a bill 'which will open the doors of the courts freely to all persons who may wish to avail themselves of British justice without regard to the question of their wealth or ability to pay.'

Two years later the Legal Aid and Advice Act came into force, establishing a comprehensive system of free support for people who needed legal representation but who couldn't afford it. For the first time a system was in place that provided for the poor.

Almost exactly 50 years on, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, promises 'reforms' which attack the very notion that the state should guarantee everyone access to legal representation. His plans will remove legal aid for civil cases involving damages, which includes personal injury and medical negligence claims, and actions against police assaults. Legal aid for criminal and family matters will be unaffected. For the civil cases, Lord Irvine wants to introduce in the place of legal aid a 'no win, no fee' system. This works on the basis that if you lose an action you bear the brunt of any insurance and preparation costs needed to bring your case. If you win, the lawyer takes a success fee from the damages.

What justification does New Labour offer for this attack on the fundamental principle that everyone should have equal access to the law? There is the familiar chorus that we cannot afford the civil legal aid budget of 671 million. The total budget for the Lord Chancellor's department, which includes all legal aid costs, is an eighth of that given to the Ministry of Defence.

The defenders of the new 'reform' also talk of having to curb an increasing legal aid budget. One reason for the increasing bill is obviously that as poverty has increased, so has crime - and so therefore has the cost of criminal legal aid. The costs of civil cases covered by legal aid have rocketed, partly because of the vast bills charged by fat cat lawyers. But even if you accept that there's been a bonanza for lawyers which should be ended, it makes no sense to deny the poor their ability to protect their rights. What will happen is that the fat cats will remain fat, while some high street legal aid firms will go to the wall because only the large city firms will be able to risk taking on complicated cases.

The proposed reduction in legal aid follows restriction after restriction of those eligible for legal aid in the past 11 years. In 1986 legal aid was available to 80 percent of the population. Today the figure is just 50 percent. If these 'reforms' come in, they will open the door to cutting legal aid in criminal cases.

New Labour also uses the perverse argument that middle class people should not be taxed for claims by working class people that they could not afford to make themselves. In the New Statesman, Lord Irvine said, 'I cannot see how it is fair to allow people who are less well off to sue under legal aid when those on middle incomes, whose taxes help to pay for legal aid, could not do so themselves.' Surely this is an argument for extending legal aid.

The effect on the poor will be devastating. In order to bring an action over medical negligence medical reports are often needed. These are expensive. Potential claimants are likely to drop cases before they even get to a solicitor as they won't be able to afford the evidence to persuade the lawyer of their case. Actions against the police will become almost impossible to pursue as such cases are often very difficult to prove. If the police solicitor knows that the claimants are fighting on a 'no win, no fee' basis, they are likely to drag out actions in the knowledge that they have unlimited funding. Only the most committed of solicitors will be prepared to risk representing people who have been assaulted or wrongfully imprisoned by the police.

Apologists for the Blair programme have not stood up to this attack. Even worse has been the reaction of the TUC. John Monks's response was to promise to foot the bill for insurance premiums for accidents at work. Any government proposal should be judged on who it benefits. This proposal will benefit NHS trust managers, negligent doctors, police bullies, corrupt employers who don't care about health and safety, and insurance companies. Socialists in the workplace need to defend the legal aid system. A good slogan might be, 'No return to the 1930s. Fight for the right to sue.'

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