Schools morass

The placement of disabled children in
residential schools brings into question the implementation of the
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Researcher
Jenny Morris explains why.

Many local authorities are failing to protect
the basic human rights of some of the most vulnerable children in
our society. At the same time, both central and local government
seem to have lost touch with the fact that the Children Act 1989
was intended to implement the United Nations Convention on the
Rights of the Child, which the government signed up to in the same

The UN Convention upheld the rights of
children to live with their families, unless this is not in their
best interests (article 9); to be consulted and listened to
(article 12); to “special protection” if they are deprived
temporarily or permanently of their family environment (article
20); to regular reviews of placements if they live away from home
(article 25).

In addition, disabled children were accorded
particular rights, including the right to “active participation in
the community” (article 23). By signing up to the convention, and
in passing the Children Act, the government also committed itself
to assisting parents in their child-rearing responsibilities
(article 18).

There is one group of disabled children who
are commonly missing out on these rights – those who are placed at
residential and boarding schools. Recent research1 found
it is rare for disabled children to be consulted when decisions are
being made about sending them to residential schools; there is no
monitoring of care standards in the majority of such placements;
there is rarely any consideration of disabled children’s rights to
“active participation in the community”; and parents generally
receive no help in maintaining contact with their children.

Education and social services authorities are
reluctant to consider residential school placements – for both
financial and political reasons. It is usually parents, therefore,
who press for such a placement but they come to this decision
because they feel that this is the only way for their child’s needs
to be met.

Sometimes the parent will have the support of
an individual social services or education professional in focusing
on their child’s needs, but generally the decision-making process
is dominated by arguments about resources. Boarding school
placements are expensive. Neither education nor social services
authorities want this drain on their resources, particularly
because such placements run counter to the philosophy of inclusion.
This undoubtedly helps explain why it is unusual for the needs of
individual children to play any part in the discussions at the
resources panels where decisions are made.

In spite of this general opposition, however,
residential school placements continue to be made – usually because
local education and support services cannot meet the needs of the
child. Yet, following such a decision, in the majority of cases
there is very little monitoring of whether the placement is meeting
the child’s needs. In particular, children’s rights to a family
life and to “active participation in the community” seem to drop
off the agenda completely.

There are two main factors behind this
situation. Firstly, although social services departments have, in
recent years, been more likely to jointly fund residential school
placements, the majority of placements are still solely funded by
local education authorities. Social services departments consider
that they do not have any responsibilities towards these children,
although most of the children concerned are children in need
because they come under the Children Act’s definition of disabled.
And local education authorities assume that they do not have any
responsibility for the children’s general welfare, even though the
full implementation of the UN convention would require all aspects
of local (and central) government to take responsibility for
protecting and promoting children’s rights. Although education
authorities do have responsibility for carrying out an annual
review of the child’s statement of special educational need, it is
common for this to be done merely by receiving a report from the
school and unusual for the views of the child to be sought.

Secondly, even when social services
departments are involved in funding a residential school placement,
about one in four of them do not accept any responsibilities for
the child’s welfare and, even when they do, children are often not
accorded the full protection of the Children Act. Ever since the
legislation was passed, there has been confusion about how the
looked-after children regulations apply to disabled children. In
earlier years misinterpretations about how the act applied to
respite care were common2 and there is still confusion
about whether social services’ funding of a boarding school
placement means that a child is “accommodated” and “looked

The Association of Directors of Social
Services recently sought clarification on this issue from the
Department of Health. This was in the context of recent attempts by
the Boarding Schools Association and some educational charities to
persuade social services and education authorities that they should
contribute more funding towards boarding school placements for
children in need. Such placements would be more easily made if
local authorities had no obligation to be involved in monitoring
and protecting children’s interests. The minority of social
services departments that do not treat residential school
placements as coming under the looked-after children regulations
were held up by educational charities as examples which other
social services departments should follow.

When asked for a definitive view on whether
boarding school placements should be funded without the child being
treated as looked after, the Department of Health responded that
“children should not normally be maintained in schools by social
services departments unless they are looked after. This will ensure
that their progress is regularly reviewed and their welfare

No one, however, has challenged the way that
placements funded solely by local education authorities do not
attract the protection of the Children Act. Neither is it certain
that recognising the looked-after status of placements funded by
social services will necessarily lead to the children’s welfare
being protected and promoted. The authorities in our study that
recognised that Children Act regulations applied, aimed to carry
out six-monthly reviews but often found it difficult to do so.
Social workers told us they frequently did not have the time or
opportunity to properly seek the views of children, particularly of
those who had communication impairments and significant learning
difficulties. And it seemed to be rare for assessments or care
plans to cover how parents could be assisted to maximise their
child’s experience of family life. Moreover, we did not come across
any instance of a child’s right to “active participation in the
community” being recognised or promoted.

One of the most striking messages from parents
was how rarely they experienced any sense of local authorities
wishing to work in partnership with them to best meet the needs of
their child. None of the parents we interviewed had had any contact
with the local education authority’s parent partnership worker.
While some praised individual social workers, the conflict over
funding of a residential school placement often created animosity
and a lack of trust. This situation was exacerbated by the tendency
among some authorities to use the looked-after children regulations
as a “deterrent” (to quote one senior social services manager)
rather than as a mechanism for delivering children’s human rights.
Small wonder that parents often saw the regulations as meaning that
their child was “in care”. Instead of feeling supported to meet
their child’s needs, they felt undermined and threatened.

The Children Act was merely a means to an end.
Both central and local government need to focus on how it can be
used to protect and promote the rights set out in the UN Convention
on the Rights of the Child. Currently, however, arguments about
resources, a failure to recognise the human rights of disabled
children and a reluctance to use the Children Act constructively
are major obstacles.

Last year’s white paper, Valuing
, highlighted the lack of information about disabled
children in residential schools and residential homes. It committed
the DoH and Department for Education and Skills to find out more
about such children and “to develop arrangements which will create
better linkages between children living in residential placements
and their family, and ensure they are properly supported and
protected by key agencies”.4 We are still waiting to see
how this commitment will be fulfilled.

Jenny Morris is an independent


1 D Abbott, J Morris, L
Ward, The Best Place to Be? Policy, Practice and the
Experiences of Residential School Placements for Disabled
, Joseph Rowntree Foundation/York Publishing Services,

2 J Morris, Still
Missing? Disabled Children and the Children Act
, The Who
Cares? Trust, 1998

3 Letter dated 16 October
2001 from chief inspector and director of the children’s and older
persons directorate, Social Services Inspectorate.

4 Department of Health,
Valuing People: A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the
21st Century
, DoH, para 3.22, 2001

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