Wednesday, 9 April 2014

New ASC Resource Base planned for Wiltshire School: how should we plan for genuine inclusion?

The ERA notes with interest Wiltshire Council’s proposal to establish a new ‘Resource Base’ at a school in Salisbury for children with Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC). Read the proposal here.

The Council says the proposal is advanced as “a central part of the drive to develop a more inclusive education for pupils with SEN”

We were very disappointed, therefore, to note the apparent absence of detailed information to support this consultation. Planning for the genuine inclusion of pupils with ASC is a complex matter requiring advice, research and the widest possible consultation. There is far more to the idea of 'inclusion' than the simple physical presence of disabled children in a mainstream environment.

We have written to the Council for more information: information which we think should be available as a fundamental part of any genuine consultation on issues as important as this. This is an opportunity for the community to discuss these issues openly and the needs and rights of children with autism should be a paramount consideration in such a process.

Read our letter here.

POSTSCRIPT: Disappointingly, Wiltshire Council has failed to respond to our letter. This means this information has not been in the public domain during the consultation period. It also means that they have failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

This was a genuine opportunity to engage the community on the important issue of inclusion. The failure to respond is even more disappointing in view of the fact that Wiltshire Council is one of the Department for Education's 'Pathfinder Champions' under the proposed Children and Families reforms. Sadly, we are not aware of any engagement with the local autism community despite the fact that these plans may engage the Public Sector Equality Duty.

Wiltshire Council responds

Wiltshire Council failed to respond to our letter within the statutory deadline established by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 despite the fact that we had contacted their Cabinet member for Children's Services about this matter. 

A month after the statutory deadline, we received this response

It is hard to follow the Council's responses in this letter as they have cut and pasted their answers below our questions, removing the numbering in our letter as they go. However, the following significant issues stand out:

1. The Council contends it possesses absolutely no documentation regarding the establishment of this proposed ASC base, despite the fact that the proposal has been costed and put out to public consultation. If this is correct, we find this response alarming. In terms of good governance, we would expect to see significant documentary evidence relating to the proposal, e.g. an outline proposal, a record of discussion of various options and plans for consultation, data supporting the option chosen, letters between the Council and the Governing Body of Greentrees Primary School, detailed plans relating to the proposed venture for elected members etc. The absence of any documents at all is deeply concerning in terms of accountability and transparency.

2. There has, seemingly, been no consultation with children/young people with autism, parents of children with autism or any autism groups in Wiltshire. This is very disappointing and we can only say, again, that we feel this may be non-compliant with the Public Sector Equality Duty set out in the Equality Act 2010. Indeed, in light of the Council's contention that it has absolutely no evidence connected to its decision to create a base at this school, we cannot see how they can prove they have discharged the duty. The Equality Act 2010 requires that 'due regard' be given to the objectives of the Act (i.e. the need to eliminate discrimination, to advance equality of opportunity and to foster good relations between people who share the relevant characteristic and those who don’t) in all the decision-making of public bodies. The so-called 'Brown Principles' established by the case of R (Brown) v Secretary of State for Work & Pensions [2008] EWHC 3158 (Admin) confirmed what due regard means for public bodies making decisions. The case held, amongst other things, that it is good practice for public authorities to keep an adequate record showing that they had actually considered their  equality duties and pondered relevant questions. The Court noted that appropriate record-keeping encourages transparency and will discipline those carrying out the relevant function to undertake their disability equality duties conscientiously.  If records are not kept, it will be difficult, evidentially, for a public authority to persuade a court that it has fulfilled its general equality duty. 

3. Disappointingly, it seems clear that, at present, the Council can provide no evidence of what form it expects 'inclusion' to take or what the operational role of the base will be on a day to day basis e.g. the profile of the prospective pupils, the support available, the therapeutic interventions on offer, the training required for the mainstream school. We would have expected a very clear plan to be available.

4. The Council does not appear to have gathered any written advice or evidence from professionals with expertise in autism about the location of and/or proposal for this ASC base. It appears to refer only to anecdotal evidence about the school 'chosen'. This proposal concerns public money and it relates to very vulnerable pupils. We would have expected the Council to set out a clear vision about the base and to invite interested schools to tender for it by submitting evidence on how they can supply the services required in an open and fair competition. Sadly, and without available evidence to the contrary, it appears that the base may simply have been the 'price' this school was asked to pay for wishing to extend its mainstream classes. 

Is this how 'inclusion' should work? We believe genuine inclusion requires careful thought, planning, consultation and close working with experts (including parents and children).

We will be writing back to Wiltshire Council urging them to fulfil their duties under the Equality Act and to set out a clear proposal for this base. We will also question the absence of documentation. 

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